An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.

Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.

It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to Wear It Purple as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:

“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”

This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.

The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.

Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele

“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”

I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%

Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).

The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.

The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.

Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)

I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).

Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.

Aren’t these good outcomes?

Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?

I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.

I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.

So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.

This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.

It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?

I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.

I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?

Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.

By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.

The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’

This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.

In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.

There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.

 

Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?

Dr David Van Gend, a spokesperson for the Australian Marriage Forum, disputes the link between mental health and suicide in the LGBTQI community and bullying or homophobia, he provides a list of other possible causes to suggest there’s no need to ‘normalise’ homosexuality as a result. In its 2012 submission to the Australian Government, as it considered an amendment to the Marriage Act, the Australian Christian Lobby argued against the redefinition of marriage for a variety of reasons, including the argument that such a change would ‘normalise’ homosexuality in our education system.

“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?

Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.

The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…

The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.

The “New” Normal

Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31

This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.

People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.

So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.

If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.

The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing

Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.

If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?

I love much of what Stephen McAlpine writes (he’s posted on Gayby Baby as I’ve been writing this, but his piece on the Sexular Age is pertinent at this point. Here’s a quote:

“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”

I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it).  I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.

That’s not trite.  Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture.  After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle  then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now.  Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.

I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.

He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.

This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32

Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.

Paul listens.

Paul really understands.

And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.

That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…

 

It’s a few months now since my brother-in-law Mitch and I reviewed Born This Way, a book touted as the book the church needed to help us think through ministry to same sex attracted people. It’s fair to say we disagreed with the approach the book took. Now. Months later. Here is the book we both think is the book the church needs on homosexuality. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem. And here are 10 reasons why we believe this is the case.

But first. On book reviews and conversations

Before getting into the meat of the review, I (Nathan. To be clear, when this post uses “I” it’s Nathan, when it is “we” it is us) just want to make a couple of observations about the widespread criticism our first review received from people because it didn’t treat the book on its own terms (or on the author’s terms). I’m tacking them on here because they are actually pertinent, in some way, in terms of why we think this other book is the book for our times.

Before we get too far along — the original review of Born This Way has been updated a couple of times since posting, one of the significant updates was to include a link to a review of Born This Way by Liberty Inc’s pastoral worker Allan StarrBorn This Way’s author Steve Morrison has responded to this review with a gracious counter argument

I guess the question I’m still grappling with, and I think Mitch might be too, is when a book is billed as “the book the Church needs” on an issue, just how much of that hyperbole should be allowed to go unchallenged? How much should we review a book on its own terms, and how much we should review it in terms of the way it is being used or positioned in a wider conversation. A conversation that we are passionate (and interested) participants in?

It was both the nature of Born This Way, and the nature of the feedback to our review, that made me quickly come to grips with a couple of generation gaps that I don’t think us Aussie reformed evangelicals are bridging. These are labels that apply to Matthias Media (the publisher), Steve Morrison (the author), and Mitch and I as reviewers. This is the sort of tribe we all belong to, with a few geographic and denominational quirks… my observation is that there’s a generational turning point where people either generally agreed with our review, both in its substance and style, or thought it was terribad — the main criticisms of these older types were that we did not take the book on its terms and assess it accordingly, and that we wrote such a substantial critique, posted it online, and included stuff like the promotional material around the book in our treatment of the book as though they have equal weight. On this last point, I wrote something a while back about how the media is shifting to talking about a thing as though it’s the main thing, to talking about and participating in conversation, as though that’s the main thing… all of this is to say I think there are a couple of clashing worldviews operating, even within this ‘tribe’ we all belong to, which explains many of our problems with the book. I think the reason there’s such a sharp contrast between people of profoundly different demographics is because a shift happened somewhere in the last 40 years or so (this figure bleeds out at the margins — there are older people who go one way, and younger people who go the other— because it’s an environmental thing too), and this shift has two significant factors for the conversation surrounding these books, and homosexuality more generally:

  1. People grew up, and were educated, in a society that is profoundly post-modern.
  2. People on the younger side are what media sociologist types call ‘digital natives’ — a loose demographic grouping of people who believe that media is democratised. And that eyeballs and internet attention are the metric that matters. The people who watch a video online matter as much as the people who read a book, so long as they are participating in the online conversation. The implications of this are that anyone can have a platform, a book is part of a conversation just as much as a blog post, a video, a Facebook discussion — and more people might interact with the latter than the book itself. Anyone can have an opinion — expertise is ok, but not essential, ‘truthiness’ in a sense that something resonates with our experience or feelings is more compelling than traditional ‘authority’ (the sort that might come from publishing a book).

Which dovetails nicely with the thrust of our critique of Born This Way (apart from the damage we think it does to the people it talks about). Born This Way is a thoroughly modernist book written to an increasingly post-modern world. Our review was a thoroughly post-modern review of a modernist book (we broke almost all of author John Updike’s rules for graciously critiquing a book — though I think there are some new rules for people graciously reviewing books that might fit nicely with the shift described here, and I suspect giving the author a continued voice in the conversation — should they want it — is a big part of graciousness).

Born This Way’s approach to the issue is essentially: Want to know what to think about homosexuality? Here’s what words must necessarily mean (prescriptive terminology is essential). Here’s some science facts. Here’s some Bible verses. Here’s a conclusion with some important prescriptive terminology changes. Go and do what you must do when you draw some conclusions from these propositions.

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This is the way our tribe tends to approach issues. Our authority, quite rightly, is the Bible. But the way we use it (and I think this is less definitively ‘right’) is as an atomised bunch of propositional statements (which is easier when it involves clear imperatives — rules and regulations). We’re also happy to draw conclusions from what Augustine called God’s second book — the world around us, via science — so long as the Bible guides our interpretation of said ‘book’…This is all well and good if you think faithful Christianity overlaps with a modernist view of the world. If that is you, and you want to reject the ‘evils’ of post-modernity, then Born This Way might be the book for you… except for the hurt it might cause people you love, who it talks about, but even that sort of concern is a bit post-modern. And it’s this last bit that we think makes Born This Way not just a book that the church in this age doesn’t need, but instead, a book the church should not want. Why would we want a non-pastoral book trying to speak objectively into a subjective space where people need pastoring? The Plausibility Problem takes a different tack, and one we believe is much more helpful. It is, in many ways, the anti-thesis of Born This Way, where Born This Way goes left, it goes right, at every turn. I felt like one of the criticisms of our review was that we hypothesised an alternative and impossible book in our criticism of Born This Way, and that this was unfair because such a yardstick does not/could not exist. But here it is, and given the choice between the two, in terms of meeting the needs of the church in ministering to same sex attracted people (and creating communities where same sex attracted non-Christians might give the Gospel a hearing), We’d pick the Plausibility Problem for every person, every time.

I’ve noted elsewhere recently that post-modernity is more interested in a quality, plausible, story. A story where someone can see themselves as an actor, and see the narrative fitting with their own view of the world, and their self-identity. Story trumps proposition. Luckily the Bible is, I think, better understood as one grand Christ-centered narrative of God’s relationship to his world and humanity, rather than a bunch of rules and regulations (even the rules come in the context of a story, and often as stories). So our authority actually lends itself to this approach.

 

So. What does a book for this sort of world look like? It looks like Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem: the church and same sex attractionHere are 10 reasons why this is the book the church needs in order to reach the sort of world and worldview outlined above.

1. It identifies the ‘plausibility problem’ and emphasises Jesus’ story as the solution. But this is also Ed’s story

Where Born This Way attempted to be objective and deal with the facts from science and the Bible, The Plausibility Problem takes a narrative approach from start to finish. It’s about replacing the world’s narrative about sex, identity and fulfilment, with God’s narrative. Where we suggested the Gospel was something like a tacked on extra in Born This Way, it’s the foundation of Shaw’s approach.

From the world’s perspective, Christ’s call to a wholehearted, sacrificial discipleship seems implausibly unattractive for anyone, regardless of their sexuality or particular circumstances. If we are to persevere in the life of discipleship ourselves and persuade anyone else to join us, we must somehow communicate that what is offered is not a set of rules, but a dynamic relationship with the living God. — The Plausibility Problem, Foreword.

One of the other problems we had with Born This Way was its attempt to be objective meant that the author never declared how what he was writing related to his own experience. This was deliberate, but it also created what we perceived to be significant issues with the book in terms of its pastoral application (or lack thereof), because pastoring is interpersonal, and its lack of understanding of some of the complexities of same sex attraction. Being objective about something subjective (like attraction and associated feelings and desires) doesn’t intuitively work. We’d also argue that objectivity is a sort of modernist myth, that it doesn’t actually serve anyone to remove yourself, your experience, or your agenda from what you’re saying. Shaw avoids these problems by acknowledging his bias, and his experience, straight up.

I write this book as an evangelical Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Ever since the beginning of puberty, my sexual desires have been focused on some members of my own sex. What I thought might be just a teenage phase has never gone away and I remain exclusively same-sex attracted in my mid/late thirties, despite all my best efforts and prayers to change. So the plausibility problem is my problem… I believe that the Bible is God’s inspired (and thus inerrant and authoritative) Word to the people he’s both created and redeemed. Through its pages, my loving Father God tells me everything I need to know about everything that matters to him (2 Timothy 3:16–17). And those pages very clearly say that homosexual practice is wrong in his sight – remember the proof-text parade in the previous chapter. I am absolutely convinced of this, despite my own same-sex attraction and those who now tell me God never really says that, or has recently changed his mind. But it’s not even those famous individual verses that I find most persuasive.

Quoting his friend (and fellow same sex attracted author) Wesley Hill (via Washed and Waiting), Shaw says “I abstain from homosexual behaviour because of the power of the Scriptural story.” The Plausibility Problem invites the church to become a place where people can discover the power of this story.

Shaw’s basic premise, one we agree with, is that our conventional (modernist) approach doesn’t work in a post-modern world, it leaves those of us who do believe what the ‘proof texts’ in the Bible say about sexuality with the titular plausibility problem. Our inability to produce relationships in our church communities that make living a life that is faithful to this teaching possible means people aren’t listening when we tell them to live this way. He identifies a generation gap where a new generation of people aren’t prepared simply to accept the “just say no” approach.

The evangelical church’s basic message to them: ‘Just Say No!’ just doesn’t have any real credibility any more. It embarrasses many of us to even ask them to do it. It sounds positively unhealthy. It lacks any traction in today’s world – simply producing incredulity from the majority. Melinda Selmys (a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction) communicates this well: Negative chastity, the kind of chastity that limits itself to saying ‘Thou shalt not,’ has consistently failed to persuade the postmodern world because it is madness.

2. It uses ‘story’ as a mode to provide an alternative and plausible counter story to the stories we’re bombarded with by our world

Sometimes it feels like the Devil has all the good stories.

We Christians have been trying to combat real stories from the gay community of love, injustice, and real emotions, with cold hard facts and rational arguments. In a post-modern world, feelings trump thinking, and stories trump facts. Shaw attempts to counter this by providing stories that demonstrate the possibility of a life shaped by the Gospel — his story, and the stories of others who also experience same sex attraction.

This mode supports his basic premise, that real stories of the plausibility of life as a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus… Being part of the Gospel story actually works. We believe it. Because we see it in Shaw. And we’re invited to imagine how this might work for others — for those in our church community, and those not yet part of our church community.

Shaw sets up the book by telling two powerful stories of Peter and Jane. Peter and Jane are Christians lured away from faithfulness to God’s story by the competing stories of our world, and invites us to see the problem this way. We’re bereft of alternative narratives and bombarding somebody feeling the lure of these stories with a bunch of science and proof texts from the Bible will only really convince one type of thinker — a modernist — and a modernist who is prepared to let their head rule their hearts, and their sex drive. A modernist who is also prepared to critically think through and ignore the counter-messages our world smashes them with. In short, we’re not sure the modernist approach works for all that many people any more, which helps answer a question about ‘what the book the church needs’ on this issue looks like…

“How can you look Peter in the eye and deny him sex forever? How can we ask Jane to turn her back on the one human relationship that has brought her joy? It just won’t seem plausible to them. It doesn’t sound that reasonable to us either. And what doesn’t help them or us much is the standard evangelical response to what they’re facing. We’ve basically adopted the slogan from the 1980s anti-drugs song: ‘Just Say No!’ That’s often all we have to say – exacerbated by the proof-text parade if anyone raises any objections… That used to convince. That used to be a plausible argument for most. To be an evangelical has always meant holding to the truth of ‘The divine inspiration of Holy Scripture as originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct’. And when it comes to homosexual practice, those Scriptures are pretty clear; evangelicals like clarity, and those verses were more than enough clarity for many, for years. We all knew where we stood.”

3. It focuses on the relationship between sexuality, Jesus and identity

One of the interesting implications of approaching life in this world using a story framework is we’re invited to consider the motivations behind actions, not just the actions themselves. That’s how and why stories are compelling. This question of motives, character, or identity, also seems to be more consistent with how the Bible approaches questions of sin.

Sinful behaviour is produced by sinful hearts. The Plausibility Problem doesn’t shy away from the truth that our sexuality is broken by sin, it is especially strident in its criticism of the widespread idea, both from the wider world and the more liberal end of the church, that something being natural necessarily makes it good. In this sense it deals more helpfully with the born this way concept than Born This Way.

‘How can being gay be wrong if you were born gay?’ That’s a question I’m asked a lot. And it’s a good one: my same-sex attraction feels part of me in that sort of way. As a theory on the origins of homosexuality, being born gay works for me better than any of the others on the market today, although every same-sex attracted man or woman will, no doubt, have their own personal take on this most complex and controversial of areas… whether you agree with the ‘gay gene’ theory or not. It is certainly the one that fits best with my lived experience of same-sex attraction (if not everyone’s). It is the most powerful case for affirming homosexuality today. And, I guess, that’s why some evangelical Christians have put a huge amount of time and energy into fighting the idea that same-sex attraction is genetic or innate… I want to argue, even if the ‘gay gene’ were found tomorrow, we would still not need to worry about this particular battle being lost: a genetic basis for homosexuality would not make it right… You see, one of the central truths of the Bible is that we are all naturally sinners from birth and yet are still held responsible for our sin.

Our actions are the products of our identity, and realigning our identity to line up with God’s story is what the Gospel invites us to do. It changes the character we play. Or, in Ed’s words, the Gospel tells us who we are. The Plausibility Problem makes the sexuality question a question of identity, and asks us to consider what we’re going to put first.

What I most want to avoid is any other identity that might attempt to displace my fundamental identity as a Christian. For the thing that defines me most in life is not my sexuality but my status – in Christ – as a son of God.

This Gospel tells me that I am – in Jesus – a child of God. That is why I can call him Father. That is why I can call Jesus my brother. That is what his Spirit confirms by dwelling inside of me. That is who I am: God’s own dear son. And thinking like that is crucial to living the Christian life… When people say, ‘Relax, you were born that way.’ or ‘Quit trying to be something you’re not and just be the real you,’ they are stumbling upon something very biblical. God does want you to be the real you. He does want you to be true to yourself. But the ‘you’ he’s talking about is the ‘you’ that you are by grace, not by nature.

4. It invites us to tackle this problem together, as a church (because it’s a problem we’ve created together)

One ofThe Plausibility Problem’s greatest strengths (and its most important insights) is that it invites us to move this conversation away from being an issue for a particular individual to solve, and instead, to think of it as something to work through together. Our new identity in Christ isn’t a new identity that simply applies to us as individuals, becoming a child of God brings us a host of brothers and sisters in Christ. Shaw’s diagnosis takes this issue away from the realm of the same sex attracted individual, and gives responsibility for our same sex attracted brothers and sisters to all of us.

… when a same-sex attracted Christian embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to recognize that it might be, to some extent, not just their fault, but ours too.

Shaw invites us to stop placing responsibility for change on the individual sinner, and invites us instead to be a changing community where this shift in identity is both plausible and desirable, because it’s a new identity we’re all invited to share as we leave an old story behind.

I know that too often, church meetings have encouraged me to let my sin, rather than my Saviour, define me. That I have left those meetings reminded more of my same-sex attraction than my new status in Christ. They have unintentionally encouraged me to spend too much time contemplating my love of some men rather than contemplating God’s love for me. I need to hear a more biblically balanced message. One that does not brush my continued sin under the carpet, and which must keep encouraging me to repent of it (1 John 1:8–10), but which prevents my sin from ever defining me.

If the primary identity that all our churches commended to all our church members was our shared identity in Christ, that would do more to defeat this plausibility problem that we all face than almost anything else.

5. The plausibility framework offers an alternative way forward

What can we do about it? Well, this is where this book is designed to help. Its basic premise is simple: we just have to make what the Bible clearly commands seem plausible again. We need to remind ourselves, and remind Peter and Jane, that Jesus says this to us all: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)

Shaw sets about doing this with practical on the ground examples of what a more plausible church community might look like. He diagnoses the problems — or missteps the church has taken—based on his own experience and the experience (and testimony) of many other same sex attracted Christians. These missteps aren’t just related to same sex attraction, they describe fundamental problems with what (and how) we normalise in our communities, and ask us to consider what happens to people who fall outside those norms.

The missteps include buying into the world’s stories that:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality
  2. A family is mum, dad and 2.4 children.
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay.
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right.
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found.
  6. Men and women are equally interchangable.
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality.
  8. Celibacy is bad for you
  9. Suffering is to be avoided

None of these missteps, or false stories, are raised without Shaw also offering solutions based on the Bible’s story, a theology of church as people being shaped together by the Gospel, the thoughtful work of others, and his own experience. The stories he tells give us lived examples of how to respond to these missteps in a way that makes life as part of the church plausible, and one way we know it is plausible is because it explains why Shaw, and others, stick with Jesus. The structures he invites us to re-build and rely on are:

… the pre-eminence of our union with Christ when it comes to forming our identity; the reality that church is our one everlasting family; the doctrine of original sin; the full authority and total goodness of God’s Word; friendships, not just sex, bringing us all the human intimacy we need; marriage being all about the union of Christ and his church; godliness being all about Christ-likeness, not who you are attracted to; the fact that singleness is truly a great gift; and the reality that following Jesus means taking up your cross and suffering like him.

6. It invites us to see singleness within the church community as a plausible alternative to marriage and sex

The call to sexual purity isn’t just a call for the same sex attracted. It’s a call for the married heterosexual. It’s a call for the unmarried heterosexual. And being a church where it’s plausible to feel fulfilled and truly human while not having sex is a massively difficult thing if all the church says is “sex is a good part of our humanity and you need to get married to do it” or buys into the idea that fulfilment comes from finding completion in another person, your “other half”… Shaw has experienced life in a church culture that does this, that buys into the idolatry of marriage and heterosexual sex. And he calls us out of it. Part of that call is the call for all of us to pursue godliness, rather than heterosexuality, which is a really important note to hit when it comes to thinking about our sexual orientation.

7. It acknowledges that the struggle is real (but worth it)

The book is breathtakingly honest. Shaw is real about his attractions, his temptations, his struggles. He confesses and he invites us to confess too because confession like this is what will make this issue real for people, and helps identify Jesus as the real way forward. The struggle is real. Suffering is real. Self-denial is costly. It would be misleading to over-simplify the cost of following Jesus in this area, but it’s refreshing to not just see the cost, but think about how we might be invited to bear the cost together with those we love who experience these sorts of moments because they’ve decided not to pursue the fulfilment of their natural desires for the sake of the Gospel.

I have what I call ‘kitchen floor moments’. I call them that because they involve me sitting on my kitchen floor. But I’m not doing something useful like scrubbing it, although it could always benefit from that. Instead I’m there crying. And the reason for my tears is the unhappiness that my experience of same-sex attraction often brings. The acute pain I sometimes feel as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.

8. It invites us to consider intimacy apart from sex

One of the best and most pastoral problems Shaw diagnoses with our implausible church communities is that we’ve bought into the worldly narrative that intimacy is sex. He mentions that this conflation of two separate concepts has killed our ability to properly be friends with people, and to properly see intimate friendship without suspicion. Boundaries are great for stopping bad sexual stuff happening, but it’s possible that we’ve over-corrected. One piece of evidence he cites on this front is the growing belief in scholarly circles that there must have been something sexual going on between David and Jonathan. He urges us to rediscover friendship and non-sexual intimacy as a way forward. One of his really helpful points, even for married couples, is that our spouses can’t possibly fulfil all the needs we have for human love or intimacy. This is part of the idolatry of marriage and the spouse – the expectation we might bring that they will fulfil some desire of our heart that they’re not equipped to fulfil which will ultimately lead to disappointment.

The world in which we live cannot cope with intimate relationships that aren’t sexual – it makes no sense, it’s just not possible. So I’ve had to pull back from deepening friendships with both men and women out of fear that they are being seen as inappropriate. None of them were – but the supposed impossibility of non-sexual intimacy meant we felt under pressure to close them down. That’s been very hard at times. But what’s been hardest is how the church often discourages non-sexual intimacy too. Our response to the sexual revolution going on outside our doors has sadly just been to promote sexual intimacy in the context of Christian marriage. And to encourage people to keep it there by promising this will then deliver all the intimacy they’ve ever wanted.

If we’re wired for relationships, intimate loving relationships, the sort that reflects the intimate, loving, relationships of the Trinity, then for life to be plausible for single people in our churches, including the same sex attracted, we need to be much better at intimate friendships. This might mean more hugs, more deep and meaningful conversations, and more attempting to truly know someone by looking them in the eye and paying attention so that you actually understand them – with people other than your spouse.

9. It suggests same sex attraction is a part of one’s personhood that can be valued and that can help one understand God, and reminds us that all sexuality is broken

This isn’t a main point of the book, by any stretch, but in articulating a path towards faithfully finding his identity in Christ, and the love of God, Shaw has this to say as an aside.

To be fully human and follow Christ faithfully, there are many things we must do, but among them must be some sort of embrace of sexual difference. I somehow need to embrace what the Bible teaches about the importance of sexual difference, despite the restrictions it puts on my preferred expression of it. To view sexuality as a good thing, even though God bans me from acting out my desires in a sexual relationship with another man… But then surely my sexuality can be nothing more than a negative aspect of my life – if there is no prospect of me changing enough to be able to consummate a heterosexual marriage? Not if I pay attention to these precious words of pastor John Piper: …the ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people – both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).

My sexuality has allowed me to understand and appreciate the incredible power of the sexual language that God uses there and elsewhere: to communicate the passionate nature of his love for people like me! My sexuality might not lead me into a loving marriage, but it does consistently lead me into a greater appreciation of God’s love for me in Christ. That is one of many reasons why I’m profoundly grateful for it…

Most evangelicals are getting to the stage where we don’t expect ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ to produce an orientation change (while we also want to acknowledge that sexual orientation can be relatively fluid for some people). Shaw’s honest reflections about his own experience, coupled with his constant emphasis on the Gospel and his identity in Christ, should help us frame our language and expectations here too. Even if the aim is ‘celibacy’ rather than ‘heterosexuality,’ same-sex attraction might not be something to be ‘cured’ at all. Rather than asking somebody to flick some sort of switch that turns their attraction off, perhaps its more helpful to think about what it might look like for an exclusively same sex attracted person to maintain that attraction, but have it defined first by their attraction to Jesus. This is where the attempt to make attraction or orientation the same as “temptation” and thus something to be resisted, rather than re-oriented around a greater love and attraction, so misguided in Born This Way. Shaw gives a picture of the challenges presented to our same sex attracted friends when we get this wrong… the goal for Christian godliness for the same sex attracted individual is not heterosexuality, or asexuality, it is Christlikeness.

If heterosexuality is godliness, the big change that’s most been needed in my life is for me to become heterosexual. And so I’ve prayed hard and searched hard for an effective antidote to my same-sex attraction. The pursuit of holiness has nearly always equalled the pursuit of heterosexuality for me. What has so often encouraged me to give up on the Christian life has been my lack of progress in becoming heterosexual. I’ve never been sexually attracted to a woman. Yet every so often, a short period of not being sexually attracted to a man for a while has given me hope – only to have that dashed when my type of good-looking man has walked onto my TV screen or into my life. As a result, I’ve kept feeling I’m making no progress as a Christian – still struggling with the same wrong sexual desires I did back when I was sixteen. That’s when it has felt least plausible to keep going as a Christian. Feeling like you have made no steps forwards for twenty years makes you unwilling to keep going. Remembering the call to be like Jesus in everything has shown me not only the countless other ways I’m not like Jesus, but also the progress I have actually been making in becoming more like him over the last twenty years. This progress has often come in the midst of, and as a direct result of, my enduring struggle with same-sex attraction.

Shaw expresses a desire that the sort of focus we put on godliness for same sex attracted people with their sexuality be spread to other forms of sexual brokenness in the church. Getting this picture of human sexuality right helps us understand that heterosexuality does not necessarily equal godliness, and it certainly won’t in sinful people. Ever. The problem we create when we present our married heterosexuality as unfallen, or less fallen, than same sex attraction is that we isolate those around us who are not married heterosexuals.

All sexual relationships are marred (Genesis 3:7) There has been no perfect sexual relationship since then. Even the ‘perfect’ heterosexual Christian couple who keep sex for marriage have plenty to be ashamed of and embarrassed about their sexuality and their use of it. When I share those feelings of imperfection as a same-sex attracted Christian, I should not be made to feel alone.

Shaw’s plausibility cure for this is honesty. He calls us to spur one another on towards Christ-likeness with our sexuality, same sex attracted or not, and for us to be prepared to be honest (in situations of trusting relationships, but also in open, frank, honesty like the kind he presents in this book, by those who want to lead us in this area).

“… when I have to confess my sexual sins to you, don’t be afraid to confess your sexual sins to me. In that way, we can spur each other on to Christ-likeness, and on to love and good deeds through the triumphs and tragedies…

…Greater honesty about the challenges of being sexual beings has been one of the upsides of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Unlike many of the downsides, this honesty has yet to spread to the church. Some of us same-sex attracted pastors have recently taken a lead, but we have yet to be followed by the brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with internet porn, who have survived the pain of adultery or who live in sexless marriages… until some go public with their private struggles (or, at least, until we start to recognize publicly that they are issues with which many church members are grappling), the church will continue to be perceived as sexually self-righteous and sorted – rather than a place where all who are sexually broken (which is all of us!) can get the help and support we need. Many will have to struggle on alone in silence.”

10. It is pastoral.

Shaw’s use of stories, both the stories that make his own experience incredibly real and raw, and stories of how his real needs are met by Jesus, and by his church, give us concrete examples to duplicate in our own lives and as we love and care for those within our own community. This book is profoundly pastoral. It’s purpose is to help us love people in our communities, and wants people in our church communities to know the love of Jesus. Not the cold facts. It speaks into the subjective reality of the same sex attracted person, but more than that, it speaks into the subjective reality of the whole church. It invites us to think, feel and respond. It gives us patterns for that response through stories, and through the lens of the eyes and words of one for whom this advice has been effective.

I (Nathan) found the chapter on church as a family for single people particularly helpful in thinking through some of the ways my own nuclear family can start to include single friends in the rhythms of our family life. Shaw mentions the way many people within his church family provide different aspects of the family experience for him that prevent his life being one of isolation. There are people who hug him. People who eat with him regularly. People who call him to talk about life. People who arrange parties to mark milestones for him, and others who supply meals for him when he’s sick. There are people who invite him on family holidays, or to hang out and play with their kids on Sunday arvos. There are  other single people he chats with. The vision of church he describes is one where love is evident, where a sense that family could be something bigger than other narratives allow, and it’s one that seems doable, where I can pick off a couple of those roles to play for a couple of people in a way that might make the life they are called to just that little bit more plausible.

The beauty is that it’s not just the responsibility for plausibility that gets shared through these sorts of relationships, but the benefits as well.

And, crucially, this new family benefits us all – there is give and take from all of us, all of the time. It strengthens single people, but it also strengthens marriages. It allows children to grow up in an environment where there are multiple adults parenting them. It’s not perfect – there are constant ups and downs. All human relationships get messy at times, but they are a mess worth making. For when it works, it is the most wonderful of experiences for all of us. I pinch myself at times. And the plausibility of the life that I have chosen is closely tied to this experience. When church feels like a family, I can cope with not ever having my own partner and children. When it hasn’t worked is when I have struggled most. The same-sex attracted Christians I’ve met who are suffering most are those in churches that haven’t grasped this at all and that don’t even notice these individuals.

 

 

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I can’t imagine the sorts of conversations that might be happening in households around the world this week after a group of hacktivists unleashed a public sort of hell on millions of cheaters, and would be cheaters, by naming and shaming them as members of an online infidelity service. Well. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, except that some commercial radio hosts in Australia told a caller on air that her husband was an account holder. And her response:

“Disgusting”

I don’t listen to commercial radio, because I’m old. And lame. I listen to the ABC. On the radio this morning the consensus on talkback on the Ashley Madison data dump is that it’s not so much the sex that matters when it comes to infidelity, it’s the lying.

“Disgusting”

We’ve tangled and contorted ourselves into a weird sort of moral knot if we somehow think that the problem here is not more complicated than lying. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my wife would appreciate me honestly telling her that I seriously wanted to sleep with other people if only she’d give her blessing. I think that desire, itself, is a problem for one’s marriage vows. But maybe that’s where the dishonesty rests… in those vows.

This breach of security and privacy does throw a bunch of interesting ideologies into the mix. It invites us to consider just how coherent a view of morality based on ‘harm’ and individual liberty really is in the scheme of deeply enmeshed human relationships. It’s easy enough to ask “where’s the harm in a bit of consensual sex between adults” but much harder to ask that question so flippantly when one or both of those adults is already enmeshed in a relationship where their actions are not simply their own, but actions of a person-in-relationship. It’s interesting to consider what privacy really is, and whether its something to protect and pursue, or at least whether its something you can ever assume. Someone called this the “wikileaks of personal data.” There are some who feel the really egregious sin here is the breach of privacy. Others have asked about the place of vigilante justice for moral, not criminal, failings (the whole vigilante thing makes me uncomfortable, be it wikileaks, or Anonymous). The company behind Ashley Madison released a statement on the breach that says:

“The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

The question of competing visions of personal virtue and what this looks like in a society where some aspect of life is shared is interesting. I think. I’m not sure you can speak of concepts of ‘society’ and ‘citizenship’ without trying to establish a sense of virtue, or some parameters, tht hold people in a society, or people group, together.

It also invites us to ask what is really private, and whether the thoughts, desires, and private acts of one’s ‘inner-man’ or ‘inner-woman’ are morally distinct from public acts. There’s a whole bunch of modern moral theory that says its only what you do that matters, what you think is private and its your own little kingdom with your own rules. That you can’t be morally culpable for thought crime. But doesn’t this just invite us to extend our private kingdoms as far as we can? To get away with as much as we can short of actually doing something? And where do we then draw the line? What’s the moral difference between fantasy and pornography? Between signing up for a cheating account with every intention of using it, and actually using it? What difference does it make if you are in a relationship and the private ‘inner world’ denies, dishonestly, your changed status?

If an Ashley Madison account exists but nobody is there to see it, is it still ‘cheating’?

“Disgusting.”

It’s pretty easy to jump up and down and point the finger at these exposed men (and women, though nobody can really tell what percentage of Ashley Madison accounts were really real, and really women). Lots of people are doing it. We love it when some horrible person gets EXPOSED. Imagine that text as a rubber stamp graphic being thumped onto your TV screen in one of those Current Affair exposé episodes. We love a good finger point. Somehow a crass commercial exercise like exposing a cheating husband on radio is something to delight in or be fascinated by, even as a family’s life potentially disintegrates in the voyeuristic ear shot of hundreds of thousands of listeners.

But what if it were me, and my inner man in the spot light?

What if my thoughts were projected on a screen, captured, hijacked, and released to millions of voyeuristic ears and eyes baying for blood?

It’s a horrible thought. Isn’t it. My hidden desires. The stuff that I would consider doing if I thought there was any chance that nobody would ever know. That nobody could ever find out. That my privacy was guaranteed… What is it for you? Where would you go given the cover of darkness? What would you do if you had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I know I’d be dangerous with that sort of power… and that sort of opportunity.

“Disgusting.”

I hope I’m not alone in acknowledging that if the very worst of my thoughts were captured, catalogued, and released online I would be terrified that anyone could download a database and search for my name. Least of all that my inner thoughts would be exposed to my wife, and the nation, in a radio interview.

“Disgusting.”

I feel like most of us would be destroyed if this happened, most of our relationships — at least those built on the assumption of total honesty rather than love, grace, mercy and forgiveness — would disintegrate with the voyeuristic eye of the public turned on us. I don’t want to give the guys on this database a free pass. Signing up for a terrible website offering a terrible product is a terrible and disgusting thing to do. I’m not interested so much in excusing them, but in remembering to number myself amongst the transgressors. Not because I have an Ashley Madison account, but because the account that I do have, in terms of my desires and thoughts, is not clear. My guess is neither is yours, nor any of those jumping in to condemn the cheats. We’ve all got some sort of ‘account,’ a record that if revealed to the world would cause that sort of visceral response (so long as we’re prepared to forget our account when we judge others).

“Disgusting.”

For the record, just so we’re clear, Ashley Madison is destructive, its destruction would be terrific if it didn’t involve so much collateral damage, and if the collateral damage wasn’t the result of an outraged mob baying for the blood of these “disgusting” clients. Cheating, or attempting to cheat is disgusting.

But so am I.

“DISGUSTING”

And I don’t want my disgustingness exposed. The thought profoundly terrifies me. The cost would be excruciating.

And so. I empathise with these guys who have been exposed.

I understand the desire to keep our desires private. Uncovered. Hidden in darkness. Held in encrypted digital vaults rather than published for all to see. I wish I had that sort of control. The ability to keep things hidden. But I don’t. I can’t.

What’s perhaps most shocking is that while I may never be accountable to other people for the workings and perversions of my inner-man (so long as I keep them in check and don’t sign up for, or use, web services where I can be exposed), I will certainly be accountable to God.

The God of the Bible who has a little something to say about adultery that should put all of us on notice, and invite us to not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at those ‘disgusting’ folks who have been caught out using a disgusting ‘service’ (to call it a ‘service’ as though it provides some sort of beneficial act for its customer is to be a little too generous). Jesus says the life of the inner person counts. The stuff that you think is private, and secret, isn’t. And it’ll be exposed.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:27-28

In another passage, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns against hypocrisy because nothing ‘hidden’ stays hidden.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12:2-3

When it comes to God, I don’t have secrecy. But I do have grace, love and forgiveness. I might try to keep the worst of my thoughts and desires from the people around me, this desire for secrecy and darkness to get away with stuff is fundamental to our humanity — it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do when they hide from God in the garden, and its what people do over an over again in the Bible. But I should be able to trust the people who love me with this part of me, and trust their ability to love and forgive me, just as God does — often its the desire not to hurt others that rightly prevents people from oversharing the depths of their brokenness. I hope that this love and forgiveness would be offered in my marriage (I’m not seeking to test the limits), but ultimately, I know and have a promise from the one who intimately and completely knows my “inner man” that the disgusting stuff has been seen, but the record, the account, is as good as destroyed because Jesus took on the cost of my disgust, the shame, the public humiliation, and the punishment, for himself. He wore it. He owned it. He took it.

 

That’s good news for me, and perhaps it might be good news for the hundreds of thousands of Ashley Madison account holders in Australia, or the millions around the world, facing an uncertain future at home this week. Your account can be wiped. You can start again. Trying to hide behind ‘privacy’ and secrecy is something that should decrease over time as you follow Jesus, both because shameful behaviours should decrease, because hiding is a path to hypocrisy, and because you simply realise that Jesus bringing us into the light we no longer need darkness to feel loved and secure. That pattern of our humanity is broken because guilt, shame, and their cause — our disgusting behaviour — are taken away.

King David was an adulterer — not just in the ‘inner man’ sense — he committed adultery and like an Ashley Madison customer tried to get away with the ‘perfect’ secret ‘leave no trace of lipstick’ act. He tried to cover up his actions (and used murder to do it).

Disgusting.

And God exposed his heart, and his ‘hidden’ actions. David, more than anyone in the Bible, knows the ins and outs of the experience a bunch of blokes around the world are going through as the nightmare of having their ‘disgusting’ hearts exposed. A prophet is pretty much the equivalent of an Old Testament wikileaks, or a group of hacktivists, and David’s sin was brought out into public and recorded in the books that went on to become the Bible. A book that has been read for thousands of years. EXPOSED. You don’t get much more exposed than this. And yet, David found forgiveness and love and mercy in God, a taste of what was to come through the Cross. He wrote:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us. — Psalm 103:8-12

I’m praying some of the Ashley Madison customers thrown into the emotional abyss by this exposé find comfort in this picture of forgiveness, and find this sort of forgiveness in God through Jesus, and expressed by his people, the Church.

The invitation you’re extended, by Jesus, is to step out of darkness and secrecy, and to come into the light. You have nothing to fear when it comes to being exposed if you’re absolutely prepared to be exposed, and to point to Jesus, the one who is not disgusting, and was free from guilt and shame, as the basis of your security.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-20

Is it possible that Christians spend far too much time trying to decide whether a particular action or thought is sinful, and not enough time thinking about what sin really is, or what goodness really looks like as an alternative? We’re worried about our hands and eyes, where perhaps we should be more worried about our hearts. Is it possible that we’re obsessively worried about sin, when perhaps we should be excited and thankful that despite our inability not to sin, God forgives us and changes our hearts through Jesus, and invites us to follow his example. Is it possible this worry comes through in the way we present the ‘good’ news of the Gospel?

isxsinful

Sin and defining ‘good’

In the beginning, God looked at the stuff he made in this universe and declared it ‘good’ — but what does ‘good’ mean?

I’ve always injected a bunch of my own understandings of the word ‘good’ into the first chapter of the Bible, which typically revolve around my fairly modern assumption that goodness is a sort of material quality, perhaps even an aesthetic quality. God made a good world like IKEA does not make a good table. God made a good world like an artisan specialty coffee roaster makes a good flat white. It’s good because of what it is, and how I experience it.

But what if ‘good’ means something other than that the universe was, as declared by God, materially excellent? John Walton is a guy whose looked at what the ancient world understood the existence of a thing (the nature of ‘being’ — the fancy word is ‘ontology’). He suggests that if you were trying to define something in the ancient world, the world in which Genesis was composed, you would define a thing in terms of its function, and a declaration by someone who made something that this thing was ‘good’ would be caught up with it being able to perform a function. When God declares the world he makes ‘good’ he is declaring it good for the purpose for which he made it. Walton thinks that Genesis invites us to understand the world being created as God’s cosmic temple, with Eden functioning as the sanctuary in the Temple, and us humans functioning as God’s living images in that temple. The creation of the Temple later in the Old Testament has huge echoes of this creation week, this isn’t a controversial proposal, but it does significantly alter the way we have to read the early chapters of the Bible. Walton’s proposal is one I spent a fair bit of time interacting with in my thesis, and one that I am convinced by (and convinced has massive implications for what it means to function as God’s image bearers, or what being made in God’s image actually means). It’s interesting because our first response as modern readers is to, like I always have, read Genesis as answering ‘material’ questions about the universe, when in fact we should be answering ‘functional’ questions about the universe if we want to treat the text as a product of its world, answering questions its earliest readers were asking (as well as answering questions we should be asking).

When we’re repeatedly told that “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1 we’re being told that the world God makes is meeting the function he has designed for it. When God makes us humans he gives us a vocation — described in Genesis 1 — which outlines the function of humanity (our function is also caught up in the word used for image, and how that word was understood, and in the description of how he forms and places Adam in Genesis 2). We have a good job to do, ruling God’s good world, according to its inbuilt purposes, for and like God. Presumably being fruitful and multiplying, and extending God’s presence as his image bearers also meant extending the garden sanctuary across the whole world. What’s important here is that the nature of what it means to be human — at least in the Genesis 1 sense — involves a created function or purpose. Our own goodness is a product of whether or not we achieve that purpose.

If you had to answer the question “what is sin?” from the first two chapters of the Bible it would be a failure to be ‘good’ in the sense of failing in this divinely appointed vocation. A failure to bear God’s image and represent him. In Genesis 2 we see Adam bearing God’s image by naming the animals (just as God has named the things that he made). All is good in the world. Except that Adam is alone.

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

This aloneness doesn’t fit with the Genesis 1 picture of ‘goodness’ — or the function God envisages for humanity. In Genesis 1 God describes humanity’s image bearing capacity, our ability to represent the loving triune God, and ability to be fruitful and multiply caught up in us being made male and female. Not alone. So this ‘not goodness’ is fixed in Genesis 2 when Eve is introduced. Eve is also introduced in the narrative because none of the animals is suitable for the function God’s purposes require. The declaration ‘not good’ is a declaration that God’s created purpose is not being met. So God fixes things.

Proposition 1: God defines what ‘good’ is.

Then we break them. If part of God’s purposes for the world was to defeat evil — especially evil as it is embodied in Genesis 3 by the serpent — by creating and spreading his temple and presence in the world through his image bearing people then things seem to go very wrong in terms of God’s purposes in Genesis 3. Genesis 3 is where we get our first picture of sin. Our first sense of how to answer the question ‘is X sinful’ — but Genesis 3 also massively changes the playing field for answering that question because it massively changes us. Presumably prior to Genesis 3 everything about who we are as people is aligned with God’s function — our hearts, our desires, our thoughts, our actions — after this point, it seems none of those things line up with the idea of being fruitful and multiplying God’s presence as we live out his purposes. At least according to the way the story of the Bible works, from this point on, we all live out our own purposes. Our hearts and desires become evil, oriented to ourselves and to things other than God.

So if ‘goodness’ is about God’s purposes being met by the things he has made, and ‘not goodness’ is a frustration of those purposes, then what is at the heart of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3? I think there are actually a bunch of things they do wrong in Genesis 3, but the fundamental ‘wrongness’ is actually a failure to live as image bearers of God when push comes to shove. When the serpent enters the scene what he tempts them with, and what they display, is a life where its their own purposes that define ‘good’… and this, is sin.

Proposition 2. God defines what good is, sin is when we come up with our own definition of good, apart from God.

The classic answer to the question of ‘sin’ in Genesis 3 is to identify the specific act of transgression. Adam and Eve disobey God’s clear instruction and eat the bad fruit. And that’s certainly a sin. But sin is more than simply a disobedient act. I think we get into massive problems as the church — and massively confuse people about what sin is — if we run around looking for equivalent acts of transgression, rather than talking about the hearts that produce those transgressions. Here’s something interesting in Genesis 3.

Notice here, in the same words we’ve read already in the first two chapters of Genesis, it’s now Eve deciding what “good” is, and its the opposite of what God tells Adam to do in order to be meet his purposes.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Adam and Eve desired what the Serpent promised — that they would be like God (a thing they already had). I reckon they’ve failed to ‘guard and keep’ the garden, the literal instructions God gives Adam in Genesis 2:15, simply by letting the Serpent in. I think they’ve given the Serpent’s lies more weight than God’s truths, and before they eat the fruit — which is where most people think they sin — they’ve already replaced God with themselves and are living and making decisions according to their own purposes. This becomes evident in their actions, which are the fruit of their hearts. But its their hearts that are oriented away from God and his purposes first. And any action from a heart like this is an action of a person not living according to God’s purpose for humanity.

According to the rest of the story in the Bible, the result of this Genesis 3 failure is that we’re now genetically predisposed to be just like Adam and Eve. To not live like God, but to live for ourselves. Their mistake repeats in every human life, but now its because we’re born inheriting this pattern of life, and born outside the sanctuary of Eden, not image bearers formed in the garden-temple, but people with hearts ready to reflect whatever it is in God’s world that we want to replace God with. The image we’re made to carry, and God’s purposes for humanity, aren’t totally wiped out by our autonomy, that’d give us too much power. His common grace, and his love for people, means that there’s something written into our DNA that means we live and breath and love and do things that seem good, even though our motives always have something of our own interest or desire to autonomously define ‘good’ involved.

Proposition 3. Hearts that define their own ‘good’ define their own gods (and are defined by those gods).

Sin is any product of a disordered heart — a heart that sets its own agenda and produces actions according to that agenda — even if the things we do appear to be obedient to God’s purposes, even if we look like we’re living, breathing, images of the living, breathing, God, if our hearts are pointed towards our own ends as we do those acts, are those actions not infused with and given life by our disordered hearts? In the Old Testament these disordered hearts lead us to produce idols in Isaiah this is literal… and its a parody of Genesis 2 which leads to dead images (and ultimately dead people). Images and idols are conceptually linked through the Old Testament, because when God made us we were meant to be his living images that represented him in his temple — which is exactly what other religions did with their dead idols.

All who make idols are nothing,
    and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
    they are ignorant, to their own shame.

The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.

They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”— Isaiah 44:9, 13, 18, 20

The “they” here is a little ambiguous, and speaks both about the idol and the idol-maker. Psalm 115 makes this connection explicit.

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. — Psalm 115:4-5, 8

In Ezekiel we’re told idols aren’t just physical things a person carves, but the product of hearts turned away from God.

“‘When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” — Ezekiel 14:7-8

In Romans 1, Paul talks about the human condition in this way too, suggesting that our hearts are darkened because we turned away from God and worshipped the things he made instead.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21

In Paul’s logic in Romans all the things we might use to classify different Xs as ‘sin’ — the moral categories we might use to assess our actions— are said to flow from this fundamental cause. Us exchanging God for stuff God made.

Proposition 4. Hearts that are turned away from God are hearts that are darkened and turned towards death.

All our hearts do this. It’s why God promises to step in and replace hearts shaped by stone idols with living hearts shaped by his Spirit. Interestingly, the sort of process  described here (washing, restoring, and a sort of ‘re-breathing’ ritual) is what countries in the Ancient Near East did if their idols were taken during conquest by another nation to re-establish them in their temples. This is a promise to restore God’s people to their created purpose.

“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27

Focusing on symptoms rather than the disease

Just to be clear, I think the answer to the question “is X sinful” is always yes, in this world.

So long as our hearts are still tainted by sin.

Some acts that are clearly disobedient to God and his revealed standards are more clearly sinful than others, but any failure to live as image bearers of God, any failure to appropriately imitate God are failures to live up to the purpose we were made for, and that failure is caught up in the idea of autonomy, or living as though we’ve replaced God, where we live as though we get to make declarations about what the ‘good’ for a thing God has made is (including defining what we think is good, according to our own desires). These failures which definitely include those moments of direct disobedience to specific commands, but will also include disobedience to general catch-all commands like ‘be perfect,’ ‘be holy,’ and ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart.’ In Genesis 3, immediately after they’re caught, but before they receive God’s response  — the curse — the way Adam and Eve speak about their bad decision, and each other, shows that their hearts have already changed. They are acting out of self-interest, and not according to God’s purposes. They’ve defined their own good, and their judging each other accordingly.

Proposition 5. From this point on our hearts are a mixed bag. Humanity is still made in the image of God, but we keep remaking ourselves in our own image, and conforming ourselves into the image of our other gods.

A good summary of the Old Testament’s view of humanity (a fancy word here is anthropology) is that we’re a complicated mix of people made by God to do one thing, and we know what that thing looks like, but our hearts have been so frustrated by evil so that we do another. God is patient and good though, and merciful, so he keeps providing guidelines to help people try not to be evil (this just keeps looking like a to do list though). It’s unhelpful, then, to say that sin is simply not obeying the list of rules in the Old Testament law, as though its all about a moral code, when the defining principle for God’s people, following in the footsteps Adam and Eve should have walked in is to “be holy because I am holy”…

I think we get sin massively and unhelpfully wrong when we try to write a list of actions that are, or aren’t, sinful. Our actions indicate our hearts, and whose image we’re bearing, but its this question of whether or not our lives are aligned with God’s purposes that actually determines whether or not we’re sinning.

If all this is right, there are interesting implications in this for how we answer this question, especially in how we deal with the difference between experiencing the results of a broken and cursed world, and deliberate decisions to express our autonomy through actions that have no redeeming features. I can see how this could be heard as being massively pastorally unhelpful when people ask the question “is X a sin?” with an agenda or with a lack of self-insight (such that asking the question is sinful). Often this question has been used to demonise, rather than humanise, another person (and often the people answering the question have not been particularly ‘human’ in their responses). A couple of examples are when people ask “is same sex attraction a sin” or “is anxiety a sin”… it is massively unhelpful to say “yes” to these questions without the massive caveats that “all human sexuality as we experience it from autonomous broken hearts is sinful” and “all views of life in the world from autonomous hearts are sinful”… but I think its safe to say that the diagnosis of the human condition in the Old Testament is pretty consistently a diagnosis that our hearts are fundamentally oriented away from God’s purposes, and that orients us as people away from God’s function.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. — Genesis 6:5

Proposition 6. Sin is: taking a good thing (including people and abstract things like love) that God has given a good function and created to serve a good purpose and using it for some purpose other than the purpose God created for us, in line with our own hearts.

I’ll get to this below, but I think the human reality everywhere, in every heart, this side of the new creation God promises at the end of the Bible, is that every thing we do will involve some bit of our self-seeking, sinful hearts as a motivating factor.

Proposition 7. This is a universal problem and a description of the human condition for all people.

It becomes less and less a motivating factor as we’re conformed into the image of Jesus, but it’ll still be there. Everything we do on our own steam is sin. This is true for things we do for ourselves, and things we do for others. It’s true for things we do by ourselves, and things we do with others. Our collective actions will be a mix of the goodness God made in us raging war with the self-seeking (or not-God seeking) desires of our hearts.

Proposition 8. Because this is a universal problem, and we are affected, we can’t perform heart surgery on ourselves, neither can other sinners. 

 What wretches this means we are. Who can save us?

How Jesus both cures our sinful hearts, and shows us what healthy hearts looks like

Proposition 9. The answer to Paul’s question posed above — who can save us? — is Jesus.

I think, according to the above framework and the way Paul’s use of Adam seems consistent with it in Romans, that Paul’s description of human thought and life in Romans 7 is about the dilemma we experience as people made in God’s image who are infected with sin — and his cry for help is the cry of the human heart to be restored.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. — Romans 7:22-23

Paul wants out of this way of life.

Which happens when Jesus makes it possible for us to be children of God again through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8), as we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

One of the fundamental promises of the Old Testament is that God will intervene with the human condition to give us ‘new hearts’ — reoriented hearts — hearts not shaped by the ‘stone’ dead idols we worship, but by the living God (cf Psalm 115, Ezekiel 36:26), hearts that allow us to obey God — or meet his purposes again (cf Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31).

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 36:26

Proposition 10. Jesus came to fix our hearts because our hearts are the heart of our problem, and make what we do sinful.

Proposition 11. The way Jesus talks about the problem of sin shows that it is a problem of the heart not properly loving God, not a question of a list of rights and wrongs, or Xs that are sinful, or not sinful.

Some people who operate with the assumption that sin is specific transgressions against a particular rule have a hard time accommodating Jesus’ ‘new ethic’ in the Sermon on the Mount. For these people, suddenly thought crime is a thing. But what if Jesus isn’t bringing a new ethic to the world, what if he’s showing people that they’ve got the old ethic wrong, that the way to understand the Old Testament law was that sinless humanity required imitation of God, and what if this is why the Old Testament had a ritual of atonement built into the law, because imitating God and fulfilling God’s purpose for the law is impossible for sinful us. So the rich young ruler who says “I’ve kept all the laws” might be right, but this doesn’t make him sinless? What if Jesus as God’s real image bearer, the one who sees God truly, does fulfil the law in terms of its purpose by ‘being perfect’…

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:8, 17, 48

What if the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that X is always sinful, but its the wrong question? What if Jesus isn’t worried about answering the question “is X sinful” at all, but about offering the transformed heart promised by the Old Testament so that “is X sinful” is the wrong question? What if the other bit where Jesus talks about the law and the prophets is related to this idea of fulfilment, and Jesus is the one who perfectly loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and loves his neighbours as himself?

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:37-40

Just remember, the point is not that any individual action is not sinful, but that every action from a heart that doesn’t truly imitate God is sinful. The point of the picture of humanity in the Old Testament is that nobody loves the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. Even in their best moments. Even the best of people. And this is the ‘greatest commandment’ which helps us understand the purpose of all the other commandments, and the law, and the prophets, and so, the purpose of our humanity. This is what living life in God’s image looks like, and its what Jesus does — and in doing so, what he secures for us in him through his death and resurrection (as well as making payment for our failure as a substitutionary sacrifice. We still need atonement, just like people in the Old Testament. Because there’s a gap between how we live and how we were made to live that is expressed in our every action.

Here’s a cool thing. I’ve been grappling with this sin question for a while and wondering how what I think fits with this emphasis on the heart fits with a verse like:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew records this bit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where it fits with this idea that we are imperfect from the inside out, it comes right after Jesus says:

“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The heart, mind, eyes and hands are all connected in this picture of what being a person looks like. Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount, Mark puts this bit in some of the things Jesus teaches on his way to Jerusalem. He says:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” — Mark 9:43-47

The word behind ’cause to stumble’ in the NIV which is often translated as ’cause to sin’ (see ESV etc) is the Greek word which transliterates as scandalise (σκανδαλίζῃ), it means what we think it means in English, carrying a sense of causing offence. One thing to remember is that the Bible describes sin using a bunch of different words, and we lazily translate them all as ‘sin.’ These passages might seem to support the idea that sin is simply a wrong action (or thought) and leave us legitimately trying to solve for X. So that we know what to chop our hands off for, and pluck our eyes out for… except… in both Matthew and Mark Jesus lays the blame for sin somewhere else. Both Matthew and Mark record this as Jesus answering the Pharisees questions, and correcting their understanding of, the point of the law… The Pharisees are playing the “is X sinful?” game and coming up with some incredibly stupid things to ask the question about, leading them to add stuff to what God has commanded that leaves them imitating man, not God.

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” — Matthew 15:6-20

Mark doesn’t do much more with this, he too records Jesus quoting Isaiah, and then saying:

 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” — Mark 7:14-23

We don’t need to chop off our hands, or gouge out our eyes. These don’t actually cause us to sin at all, they are instruments controlled by our hearts. Defiled hearts cause scandalous hands. We need to chop out our hearts. Or rather, we need Jesus to do that for us.

Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and their approach to the law — predicated on deciding that X is sinful, but missing the point of the law — is that their hearts are hard. That’s why he says Moses wrote the law (he’s specifically answering a question from the Pharisees about why the law allows divorce) in Mark 10, and again shows they’re missing the point when they essentially ask “is X sinful” (where X=divorce) and Jesus’ answer is essentially that they should be looking internally for sin…

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. — Mark 10:5

Matthew says plenty about the heart too — and the link between who we are as people, and what we do being a reflection of who we are (though also being that which indicates who we are).

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” — Matthew 12:33-37

What we do comes from who we are — if we’re what Paul calls “in Adam” or reflecting the image of Adam, this means we’re a mix of autonomous God-replacing desires and people who bear the image of God, if we’re in Christ it means we’re a mix of this and the Holy Spirit, which is conforming us into the image of Jesus, a transformation that will ultimately be completed in the new creation.

Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees and their approach to their God-ordained purpose in Matthew, but he makes it clear that he is the way back to a new heart he quotes Isaiah and puts himself in the picture as the solution to the problem with our humanity:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ —Matthew 13:15, which is a slight adaptation of Isaiah 6:9-10 that presents Jesus as the answer to the question “how long O Lord?”

Proposition 12: Jesus came to heal calloused, idolatrous, sinful hearts, and to offer a way for people to be ‘good’ living images of God again, representing him in his world.

A healthy approach: getting the balance right between disease treatment and health

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation…  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:13-15, 19-20

There’s a bit of a conversation happening online in Aussie circles at the moment about whether we adequately present the Gospel when we emphasise penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross — that’s the thing Colossians 1 describes above, where Jesus swaps his perfection for our imperfection at the Cross, making atonement for us. The Cross certainly does this. But it does a little more than this, and simply treating the Cross as an antidote for sin leaves us emphasising sin as our problem, and may leave us asking the question “is X sinful” as we live in response to the Cross. But what if the Cross isn’t just about a substitution? One other stream of thought is that the Cross is also our example — often this is held up against substitutionary atonement, almost as an alternative Gospel. But what if we’re actually meant to hold them together, and what if our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is caught up in our obsession with the wrong thing? Not sinning, rather than imitating God. They’re linked. Obviously. Because God doesn’t sin, but sin is also, if the above is correct, the result of not imitating God.

If sin is a heart disease, our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is like fighting heart disease by emphasising the need for a heart transplant. But when you get a heart transplant you also need to know how to live. You need to know the pattern of life that comes from a healthy heart, and keeps it healthy. We can’t hold our need for atonement apart from what the ‘good’ life is meant to look like. Our version of Christianity sometimes feels more like “don’t be sick” than “this is what it looks like to be well” — and I think that’s because we tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement, rather than holding it alongside the example of Jesus (what, in latin, gets called Christus Exemplar). Sometimes the thing we emphasise when we talk about the good news of the Gospel as substitutionary atonement is the Gospel’s implications for us (typically as individuals) rather than the Gospel being centred on Christ. It is good news about him, first, isn’t it?

Proposition 13. The Cross is where Jesus gives us new hearts to re-shape us and recommission us into God’s (and his) image bearers again while taking the punishment for our darkened hearts, and where he shows us what it looks like to live ‘good’ lives as image bearers. 

The story of Jesus’ life and his mission for hearts and minds as recorded in Matthew and Mark culminates in the ultimate expression of humanity defining its own good, of humanity rejecting God’s vision of ‘the good’ and what his plans for the world look like. The story of Jesus is not a different story to the story of Genesis 1-3. Jesus is the real image bearer, and we see Adam and Eve’s behaviour fulfilled at the Cross, where humanity collectively (but especially Israel and Rome) rejects Jesus, God’s king. God’s image bearer. We kill God’s divine son. This is Adam and Eve’s autonomous redefining of the good writ large.

Proposition 14. The Cross is sin in its purest form. This is the desire of our hearts being expressed — life without God. But it’s also God’s heart being expressed in its purest form, and his ‘good’ victory being won. It’s where the good purpose of the world is revealed.

The Cross is why Jesus came. It’s, at least according to John (see below), and Peter, the moment the world was made for. And it’s where God’s offer of healing and a new heart is made reality, the Spirit arrives in people’s hearts because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Cross is Jesus imitating God. God’s character is defined by this act of self-giving love for one’s enemies. This voluntary sacrifice —the giving up of everything — is Jesus showing what it looks like to love God, and his neighbours — with all his heart. Perfectly imitating God and fulfilling the law. It’s also where Jesus defeats evil, and through the resurrection and its promise, Jesus re-kindles the hope and promise that God’s kingdom will spread all over the earth.

The Cross is humanity being evil, and Jesus being good, simultaneously. It is victory. It is where God defeats evil. And its an incredible picture of God’s temple harking back to creation as his image bearer dwelling in his world to give life. It’s the moment the world was heading towards, and the moment the serpent is defeated. Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve fail. John describes this aspect of God’s plan as Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and in the picture John paints of the significance of the Cross he sees this being the decisive moment that guarantees that the serpent, the Devil, loses and God wins (see Revelation 20).

I wonder if the question “is X sinful,” while well-intentioned, misses the point that in this life our hearts are still tainted by sin, and still a work in progress. We’re fairly constantly called to flee particular sorts of sin in the New Testament, but every one of the sins we’re called to flee is linked to idolatry, which is linked to the orientation of the heart. The sins we’re called to flee are products of our poisonous hearts, and really fleeing this behaviour actually requires us to live life — to act — out of the new part of our heart, not simply to stop doing that other stuff. Christians are post-operative heart transplant recipients. The permanent internal change has taken place but still working their way through our bodies and our lives. I wonder if we’re better off asking questions about what the fruits of our new nature look like — the part of our humanity that is now the product of the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Christ.

Paul describes this new aspect of our humanity in 2 Corinthians 3. The internal work of the Spirit on our hearts is different and better than the Old Testament law, because human readers of the Old Testament law miss the point of the law without the Spirit, because our nature — our hearts— get in the way.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

… Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:2-18

We’re no longer simply a bifurcated mix of image of God and sinful heart — we’re people whose hearts are being transformed by the Spirit into the image of Jesus. To fixate on the broken bit of our humanity misses the sense that we’re also called to imitate Jesus as he imitates God, not just by not doing bad things, but also by doing good things. This, I think, is the right way to think about the social implications of the Gospel (for this to make sense, read Stephen McAlpine’s excellent review of a book by a guy named Tim Foster who suggests the key to reaching urban Australians is to move away from substitutionary atonement and towards what he describes as a telic Gospel (it’s also worth reading Tim Foster’s reflections on some of the reviews of his book, especially this one). This series of posts essentially asks what the Gospel is, and how we should preach it in our context. I know some people (like Richard Dawkins) say substitutionary atonement is an ugly doctrine, but I think our problem is that its an incomplete Gospel. It’s not ugly. It’s too individual in its emphasis, and to focused on the disease and not enough on the cure and the new life the cure brings. The life we’re inviting others to find, the life God created them for. We get Jesus’ perfect life in exchange for our diseased one, and we’re invited to join him in living it. Forever. That process starts now. We’re reconnecting with God’s vision of what ‘good’ is. This is an invitation to have a ‘good’ life.

I think, given the above, I want to go back to Martin Luther, who was big on a Christian anthropology being simul justus et peccator (which in English means simultaneously justified and sinful). I think our anthropology is threefold, and we’re calling people in our world to rediscover God’s purpose for the bit of them that still reflects his image, by connecting themselves to Jesus. In a letter to a preacher friend Luther suggested preachers need to express their real humanity in their preaching. Including their sin (rather than obsessing over is X sinful, perhaps).

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

I’d want to add, as Paul and John do, that justice does reside here a little, in the form of the love of the justified. In us. As we imitate Christ. Especially the Cross. Through his death and resurrection, and the heart-changing gift of the Spirit, Jesus frees us to bear God’s image again as we bear his image. As we imitate him.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2

Or, as John puts it in 1 John 3… What “not sinning” as God’s children looks like is loving like Jesus loved…

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. — 1 John 3:2-11, 16-24

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage.

So how do we put outrage in its place? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming defined by our outrage, and whatever it is we’re outraged about at any given moment? How do we respond rightly —love rightly — when we are confronted by or experience disorder? What stops us getting outraged and allows us to offer love as a corrective and comfort?

I think the answer to all these questions is tied up in being people, or communities, of character — or virtue — which means figuring out what it means to be good, or loving in a disordered but increasingly outraged world. If we talk of outrage having a purpose, or telos, in helping us live in and understand things about the world, we’re already sounding like little Aristotles.

Aristotle, arete, divine contemplation, and internet outrage

Aristotle might seem pretty irrelevant to figuring out why we react with outrage, whether its constructive, and what a more virtuous response might look like, but while he’s an old dead Greek guy, his understanding of ethics, telos, and virtue were influential for influential Christian thinkers like Augustine, and even influential secular moral philosophers. So it’s worth getting our moral bearings by looking at some of his thinking first.

The ancient Greek’s had this word arete which carried the sense of excellence, in a sort of moral sense. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics its most often translated as virtue. In Aristotle’s exploration of what exactly virtue is, he ultimately settled on contemplation or the pursuit of knowledge as the highest virtue, the telos of human intelligence. According to Aristotle, virtues in other aspects of life involved identifying the ‘mean’ between two extremes” — you could only do this with a mind capable of choosing what the right course of action involved.

“Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.

For example, the effect of excellence in the eye is that the eye is good and functions well; since having good eyes means having good sight. Similarly excellence in a horse makes it a good horse, and also good at galloping, at carrying its rider, and at facing the enemy.  If therefore this is true of all things, excellence or virtue in a man will be the disposition which renders him a good man and also which will cause him to perform his function well.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6

This is why it is a hard task to be good, for it is hard to find the middle point in anything: for instance, not everybody can find the center of a circle, but only someone who knows geometry. So also anybody can become angry—that is easy, and so it is to give and spend money; but to be angry with or give money to the right person, and to the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy, and noble. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 9

Modern moral philosophers can’t really speak of virtue without speaking of love, and earlier I put forward the conclusion I’m working towards earlier — back in post one of this mini-series (talk about giving the game away) — that virtue looks like loving attention. Aristotle isn’t so interested in love as the supreme virtue, certainly not when it comes to charting a virtuous response to the disordered world, when that disorder is beyond our ability to influence (he was writing before clicktivism), but he does lay a platform for the idea that virtue and attention, or contemplation, overlap, and this sense that moral excellence (arete) is tied up with us living out our purpose/function, our telos.

Aristotle has his own version of the dead squirrel, he limits the span of our virtuous giving of attention, or deliberation, to that which we can effectively change through our own actions.

As for Deliberation, do people deliberate about everything—are all things possible objects of deliberation—or are there some things about which deliberation is impossible? The term ‘object of deliberation’ presumably must not be taken to include things about which a fool or a madman might deliberate, but to mean what a sensible person would deliberate about…

Well then, nobody deliberates about things eternal, such as the order of the universe, or the incommensurability of the diagonal and the side, of a square. Nor yet about things that change but follow a regular process, whether from necessity or by nature or through some other cause: such phenomena for instance as the solstices and the sunrise. Nor about irregular occurrences, such as droughts and rains. Nor about the results of chance, such as finding a hidden treasure. The reason why we do not deliberate about these things is that none of them can be effected by our agency. We deliberate about things that are in our control and are attainable by action…

But we do not deliberate about all human affairs without exception either: for example, no Lacedaemonian deliberates about the best form of government for Scythia; but any particular set of men deliberates about the things attainable by their own actions. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4

Our ability to love, a bit like our ability to contemplate, deliberate, or give our attention to something is limited by proximity and our capacity, beyond a certain number of relationships that involve real love, Aristotle reckoned we just loved what we got from people, be it something in return, or just the pleasure of their company.

It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word friendship, any more than it is to be in love with many people at once(love indeed seems to be an excessive state of emotion, such as is naturally felt towards one person only); and it is not easy for the same person to like a number of people at once, nor indeed perhaps can good men be found in large numbers. Also for perfect friendship you must get to know a man thoroughly, and become intimate with him, which is a very difficult thing to do. But it is possible to like a number of persons for their utility and pleasantness, for useful and pleasant people are plentiful, and the benefits they confer can be enjoyed at once. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8

There was a sort of love Aristotle thought you might offer to people outside this sphere, more an analogy to this love, a virtuous ‘mean’ that involved a “habit of approving or reprehending properly” — the person who does this will be “similarly affable to those whom he does not, and to those whom he does know, this is a sort of loving attention, the appropriate application of one’s attention and efforts based on your assessment of your ability to both relate to a person, and control an outcome in the situation.

Aristotle believed that the exercise of our intellect through contemplation is both what separates us from the animal kingdom, and takes us closest to the divine (or is the activity of the “divinest part of us.” Contemplation is the path to real happiness, and to imitating God and thus, to being favoured by the gods.

And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favours those men who esteem and honour this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 10.8

Arete and the Christian

Arete features prominently in Aristotle, so you’d expect other ethical texts from the ancient world to play with it a bit. It’s worth noting, briefly, that Aristotle would not have treated Jesus like a virtuous person. Jesus might have the ability to contemplate the divine mind, but his life — especially his humility (including his failure to pursue personal honour), and his giving up of power and status for the sake of the weak, means Jesus is everything Aristotle’s vision of arete is not. This sharp distinction between Aristotle and Jesus is important, because it might help us understand the way the New Testament — Paul and Peter specifically — use arete. For Paul, arete is not the act of contemplation, but the focus of our contemplation… the bolded words in the following passages are, in the Greek, arete (or αρετη).

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:8-9

For Peter, arete is the character of God, and God’s people exist to proclaim these ‘excellencies’… contemplation is a means to this end, first we think about God’s excellencies, then we proclaim them…

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  — 1 Peter 2:9

Peter brings these together in his second letter. Our knowledge of God, through his glory and arete is what we need in order to add arete to our faith. This sort of knowledge based arete is the basis for our virtuous living and our productivity (remember, Aristotle linked arete to efficiency and our ability to achieve our telos.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. – 2 Peter 1:5-9

It’s interesting that in terms of a progression from arete, Peter moves from arete to knowledge, to self-control, all the way to love, which Peter, unlike Aristotle, seems to see as the ultimate virtue (amongst other virtues). It’s interesting that like Aristotle he sees arete as very closely linked to the divine nature. For Aristotle, the contemplative life is virtuous because it enables the contemplator to figure out the virtuous mean in any situation, for Paul and Peter, the contemplative life is about reflecting on the character of the God who reveals himself in Jesus, and this reflection on God’s nature (and our ability to participate in it) pushes us towards being effective and productive “in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter seems to place love as both fundamental to God’s nature, and the telos of the virtuous, arete displaying, human.

But what is love? And how does our understanding of love start with God’s nature (and how do we then apply this understanding of love to the question of outrage (especially if the purpose of outrage is also potentially, to point us from human shortcomings and disorder to God and his nature)?

 

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts.

cecil

Let’s assume for a moment that this tendency towards outrage is natural. That it has a purpose. And lets go further, and assume that because this tendency towards outrage still exists in the human condition, it serves some purpose.

If you’re a materialist, someone who wants a natural explanation for every observable phenomenon, this purpose might be something to do with survival. It may serve some sort of sociological function to limit harmful behaviours by ostracising harmful people.

If you’re open to the possibility of a divine creator, this purpose might be connected to our purpose as people, or some sort of in built purpose in creation. It doesn’t really matter which perspective you come at it from, its interesting to consider why we get outraged, and why we’re so keen to promote our outrage as more worthy than the outrage of another.

It’s possible that we experience outrage in a disordered way because of our disordered, self-loving, selves, and that rightly ordered outrage is not an end in itself, but a means, serving to point us beyond ourselves, not to join a lynch mob, but to pay proper loving attention to something other than us. Perhaps rightly ordered outrage helps us live virtuously in community, helping us see, or feel, truth. If this is the case, then it might be that playing the hierarchy of outrage game —where we suggest certain forms of outrage are less legitimate than others — hampers the purpose of our hard-wired outrage reaction to disorder, because it stops us paying attention, but the game might be necessary in order for us to look to whatever it is that is the root cause of disorder in our world.

Why is our knee-jerk response to disorder to passionately respond as though that disorder should not be happening? Is part of that gnawing sense that David Foster Wallace spoke of, that something isn’t right with this world.

I can’t really answer how outrage fits into a natural view of the world, that’s not the framework I use to view the world, but I think I can suggest a way that outrage-as-natural fits into a Christian view of the world.

We experience outrage because the world isn’t what it was made to be. It is disordered.

This outrage manifests itself in vigilantism or an angry internet mob because we aren’t who we were made to be.

These ideas actually link X, Y, and Z, establishing a consistent hierarchy of outrage, in a way that doesn’t make us pit them against each other. We should be outraged at the disorder we experience in the world, and in ourselves.

The Christian framework works with a hierarchy of outrage because it points us to the ultimate disorder, the disorder behind the disorder, and the ultimate sources of outrage, and invites us to see and experience all other disorder from this perspective. The dead squirrel, the dead lion, dead babies, and all other expressions of disorder in this world are the result of our shared rejection of God’s good design for the world, and his good gift of life. But this shared rejection of God’s good design, while outrageous, is not the archetypal outrage at the top of the hierarchy.

The greatest outrage in this world isn’t that we kill animals, or each other, its that we, because of our self-love, killed God. Our lack of respect for life and breath extended to the life-giver. The disordered events on a skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem, where a blameless man fell victim to an outraged lynch mob who did not care about life and breath, truly sits atop the hierarchy of outrage.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”

This should give us a perspective when it comes to all the other outrages. It should explain the human condition. Of course we have total disregard for the lives of animals and babies — of course we’re annoyed when we’re called to pay attention to these things, to respond with the sort of loving attention that costs us something — humanity was so outraged when God asked us to pay loving attention to him, through Jesus, that it executed him.

If you want to play a rhetorical trump card in the my outrage is better than your outrage game, this is it. God came into that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. In fact, we killed him.

This is the real disorder in the world, this is the culmination of our rejection of the creator’s design, this is where we’re meant to feel outrage at the state of things most keenly — this is what joins the dots to help us see our disordered, self-loving, approach to God-given life.

And here’s how this hierarchy of outrage might work, in line with God’s purpose for outrage…  The Cross is outrageous, and God would be well within his rights to be outraged, and form a lynch mob of his own — which he will. It’s called judgment — but God also responds to this outrage selflessly, by offering a kind of loving attention to those he should be outraged at. Those outrageous words Jesus speaks from the Cross are for all of us, who by nature, form part of the lynch mob that wants to kill God.

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

This is outrageous love. This is love that is not ordered around the love of self, but the love of others. It is love that is not disordered because it does not damage. Outrage that is not disordered, because it is not damaging or costly to the other, is outrage that is forgiving, that seeks to take the cost upon the self.

The events of the Cross are also part of how the God who created an ordered world sets about making the world right. The cross is a promissory note to this end, where God sends his divine son to take the disorder of the world upon himself — his life senselessly taken — in a moment when very few in the world were outraged the way they should have been.

This pattern of selfless love displayed by Jesus, and this vision for a world where disorder will be re-ordered, is what might help us process disorder and outrage now. It might see us looking for disorder beyond our own backyard too, because the re-ordering is global, and its not finished until its all been put right. As long as there are disordered things that are causing us outrage, we know there are things that need to be put right. Outrage, then, should spur us towards a better response, a re-ordering response. A loving response that is not self-loving, but others-loving, and ultimately, creator-loving.

For Christians, this puts our outrage at others in perspective, because until we were united with Jesus, sheltering with him, in and through his death, where he payed loving attention to us, so that we might pay loving attention to him, joining him in his restored life, we were part of the outraged crowd that crucified him.

For non-Christians, those standing apart from Jesus, ignoring God, and wilfully ignoring the Cross, the sense of outrage we experience at disorder in the world is just a finite taste of the infinite, unquenchable outrage, that God feels about that moment in history when the heavens were torn apart, when divine life entered the world and was brutally extinguished (however briefly), God sees you as part of the crowd taking part in that most senseless of all slaughters.

This is truly outrageous.

So perhaps outrage is a natural part of our response to a disordered world, but if it exists to push us towards God, and the good life, we need a vision for what this good life looks like, we need framework for understanding virtue, and paying proper attention to people and things, in a way that helps us put X, Y, and Z in their right place.

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged.

cecil

Maybe our innate tendency towards outrage, in the light of our innate tendency towards damaging self-love, should lead us to primarily be outraged at our own hearts, and this should help us moderate our outrage at others, and ask questions about how outrageous disorder might be a result of our shared human condition.

Perhaps our innate tendency towards outrage has the capacity to teach us something of value about ourselves, and our world. That things aren’t right. Perhaps our tendency to play the hierarchy of outrage game, weighing our outrage against others, is because we want to stay ignorant, we don’t want to have to care about too many things, perhaps, instead, we should be searching for the ultimate form of disorder that links these different disorders together.

Our self-love.

Let’s consider the possibility that the death of Cecil the Lion and the revelations from Planned Parenthood aren’t so much competing issues, but two issues that indicate something broken about our humanity, and how we engage with the world God made and the good things he gave life to — be it animals, or people.

Perhaps both stories teach us something about our world’s disordered picture of life and breath. Both lions and people (and even squirrels) receive their breath and life from God. I wrote lots about life and breath recently… but, in sum, if God is the source of all life and existence then every heart beat happens because he wills it, as a generous gift he gives. And any wanton disregard for a beating heart is a wanton disregard for the one who wills that heart to beat.

Perhaps rather than suggesting that X and Y are in tension or competition, we should hold them together as two pieces of outrageous evidence that the world is disordered. This should be especially easy for Christians because our understanding of the world, shaped by the story of the Bible, supplies a framework for observing and understanding the disorder at play in both stories.

Human relationships with animals probably weren’t meant to look like hunting and beheading them for sport…

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so…” — Genesis 1:29-30

It’s significant that when Genesis 2 records the intimate act of creation, what brings humanity to life is this same breath…

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7

Human relationships with humans certainly weren’t meant to involve hunting or dismembering other humans either.

Both these stories, X and Y, point to the same fundamental disorder in the world. Both are worthy of our outrage, but perhaps this outrage would be more appropriately directed at the kind of world where life, breath, and the giver of life and breath are treated with such disdain, and the kind of people who treat life and the life-giver with such disdain as a result of self-interest. Whether its our desire to plunge an arrow into a beautifully crafted apex predator, because we recognise and want to possess that beauty as a trophy representing our own place in the food chain, or the desire to wantonly disregard the potential humanity of a living thing with a living, beating, heart in order to turn a profit… there is something wrong with these situations.

It’s not just X and Y that show that we are broken. Our desire to hunt down the people at the heart of X and Y, whether to shame them, or when we literally call for their hanging, reveals that there is something wrong with all humanity. Humans have walked away from God’s commitment to life and breath. Be it hunters who want trophies, clinics who want to pad out the bottom line, or online vigilantes who take part in lynch mobs. Our tendency towards merciless outrage reveals this just as much as our tendency to commit outrageous acts. Our tendency to join lynch mobs reveals that the capacity for darkness doesn’t just lie in the hearts of the hunter, but in all of us. In you. In me.

Might outrage serve some purpose to push us beyond simply thinking about ourselves? Might it connect us to something bigger than self? n 

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness.

cecil

Should I pay attention to dead lions? Or dead humans?

Yes.

It’s silly to pretend this is a dichotomy. That we cannot appropriately care about, talk about, and share stories about, both. But the question of outrage is also a question of attention — a question of which outrage inducing disorder we should pay attention to.

One of the realities of the internet is that there are more things, more outlets, more media, grappling for our attention than ever before. We’ve never been more aware that our attention is finite than we are now. But it’s a cop-out to suggest that this noisy environment provides an excuse for ignorance, as much as its a cop-out to suggest that in such a noisy, confusing, environment we only have the capacity to care about one thing, so all these examples of disorder should be weighed against each other. Remembering back to our outrage equation where X is Cecil the Lion, Y is Planned Parenthood, and Z is our outrage. Can we only care about X, or Y? And is Z the right response if people try to care about what we think is the wrong thing to be giving loving attention to?

No. We can almost certainly pay attention to, X and Y at the same time. Z, our outrage, might also be a product of both, a response to disorder generally, rather than specifically. I’m able to love both my wife and my children, how I apply my time and attention in these relationships is a matter of wisdom and circumstances, and applying that attention is almost always the result of deciding not to pay attention to myself (unless I give attention based on what I think I might get in return).

But what about people who only choose to care about X, or Y, as if their attention is finite, or perhaps because they are ignorant of one or the other, or worse, through wilful ignorance. At what point does ignorance involve the sort of culpability that legitimately invites an outraged response? When is ignorance a failure to love?

Karen Swallow Prior’s question about moral culpability and wilful ignorance is a good one. Ignorance isn’t just a lack of knowledge, it’s a lack of attention. You can’t know things without paying attention to things. But what should we be giving our attention to?

The truth is, I suspect, that everyone actually has a central organising principle, or default setting, or internal algorithm, for choosing what to pay loving attention to — ironically its also the primary source of disorder in the world, causing the outrageous events we experience, and what causes us to wilfully choose ignorance — the love of self. Our primary concern is paying loving attention to ourselves, and having others pay attention to us, above all else. We place self-love as true north on our moral compass. But if this love is misguided and damaging, every direction we take using this compass has the potential to cause damage, because every step we take from that point will be misguided. We need something, or someone, to realign this moral compass, and that happens when something, or someone, realigns or re-orders, our love away from “self” and towards “others”… shared outrage about external things does this, at least in part. If you rely on your default setting you’ll only spend your time burying dead squirrels. It’s, at least in part, an act of un-selfing, of love even, when someone online chooses to care about something that goes beyond their own self-interest — to choose a lion over a squirrel — its just that when we choose a particular form of outrage we’re choosing a disordered way of love.

But what about choosing ignorance? Choosing to ignore Y because we’re exclusively giving attention to X, or vice versa. When we wilfully choose not to pay attention when it is put before us —  be it squirrel, lion, or babies— does this choice bring with it a not just some culpability for some of the disorder in the world, but that awkward, uncomfortable, feeling that we are culpable?

And is it possible that when we play the hierarchy of outrage game to dismiss the outrage of others, and the disorder behind the outrage, its because their outrage has brought something to our attention that we want to be able to blissfully ignore, and its easier to shift the focus to something a little more generic, that we can ignore again because it is less immediate. At this point, the hierarchy of outrage game is a refusal to pay attention, or to offer love, in response to a legitimate issue, even if that issue is a symptom. Its a bit like me telling my son he can’t have a bandaid for a graze because I know the solution to the graze, ultimately, is for me to teach him to ride his bike. Bandaid solutions aren’t complete solutions, but they can be part of loving, attentive, treatment for something.

One of the things outrage, especially outrage-at-outrage, does do is point us to a to a problem with our default setting, to our selfish desire to remain ignorant. The desire the squirrel-algorithm exploits. Faced with the choice between ignorance and discomfort, we’ll choose comfortable ignorance more often than not (or have it chosen for us by an algorithm). The algorithmic approach to creating a filter bubble to contain our attention just reflects what we already do, and what we already know about the world. Ignorance is bliss. We’d rather not love some people, or some created things, if doing so will cost us our comfort.

If we are going to make an unselfish decision to focus attention on some person or thing other than ourselves, is it enough to avoid culpability that a person makes this more moral choice, or does culpability result in any choice other than the most optimal choice. Can someone be culpable for giving loving attention to X, if Y is greater than X? How do we assess whether X or Y is greater when we all bring different ethical frameworks to the table? We all approach ethical questions from our own personal vision goodness and virtue. I do believe that there’s often an objective measure that distinguishes the morality of X from Y, but we all make assessments on objective truths using brains riddled with baggage and bias. Its possible, given this subjectivity that a more constructive approach to these competing visions is to find a way to establish a common picture of virtue and vice, that advances the cause of both X and Y, while avoiding Z.

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg, cited in the New York Times, When the internet thinks it knows you.

It used to be that media moguls would set an editorial agenda based on what they thought would sell papers. Well. They still do. It’s just a dying method for presenting an audience with ‘news’ via media.

That’s what news is. It’s how media works. The traditional broadcast media functions with an editorial agenda and a business agenda built on providing content that is relevant and of interest to its audience. It’s kind of our fault if these businesses choose not to show us shocking and harrowing things from across the globe, but tend to spend more time on dead squirrel issues, or even cute warm fuzzies if you watch The Project. We get the media we deserve.

Now, our media consumption is shaped by the people we connect to, and sources we allow, but more subliminally, its shaped by algorithms designed to give us exactly what it appears we want based on our habits.

The internet as we know and experience it is built on our desires and our curated network of relationships. The platforms we use online make their money by matching up our desires with solutions, or content.

Major platforms like Google and Facebook earn their keep based on shaping an experience of the Internet that is the experience of the Internet that most appeals to you. Our algorithmic experience of the Internet is a subjective experience, not an objective one. It becomes more objective only as we seek out truth through the application of our attention and our minds, going beyond what has been called the “filter bubble.”

These algorithms are coded to care about, or present to us, what they calculate matters to us in an immediate attention-hooking way, rather than what might be said to matter objectively. This filter bubble means we’re likely to be served things that engage our emotions, or even outrage us, based on how an algorithm understands who we are.

The filter bubble means we’re unlikely to be confronted with all the things that matter objectively, or even subjectively to others, if they compete with the subjective things that matter to us. Or as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, put it when describing how Facebook decides what to put in your newsfeed (see above)… dead squirrels.

The media is like a mirror being held up to the things we care about. The media, including social media, plays a part in determining what we get outraged about, and now, also, where we get outraged about it.

This filter bubble raises a question about our moral culpability for attention, or inattention, are we really to blame for being outraged at the wrong thing if the thing we’re predisposed seeing is not X or Y, dead lions, or dead babies, but dead squirrels? What is our responsibility, as online citizens, if we’re aware of X and Y, when the default setting is ignorance?

It’s interesting how the question of attention, and default settings features in David Foster Wallace’s famous insights from This Is Water, a speech in which he is arguably extrapolating from and applying Iris Murdoch’s system of virtuous loving attention… He suggests our ignorance is the product of our decision to worship some thing, to give it our attention, and often that thing is our self.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I wonder if our tendency towards outrage in the face of disorder is also a product of a “constant gnawing sense,” but in this case its the sense of paradise lost. Of a world without disorder. But more on this soon…

I’m interested too, in the idea of being morally culpable for not knowing, or not being outraged — for not paying attention — to something beyond whatever else we do know about or are outraged about. Is it immoral to only care about a dead squirrel when there are lions and babies out there? Is it immoral to care about a lion, if you’re unaware of the babies? If we know about the babies, and know that most people only know about squirrels, is it immoral not to raise people’s attention via our own outrage? Are we culpable for never moving beyond the default settings? For not looking beyond our backyard, and paying attention to those in our neighbourhood, or around the globe? Where do we draw a line?

Karen Swallow Prior wrote this helpful opinion piece, Is Cecil the lion more devastating than the Planned Parenthood videos?, for the Washington Post, asking this sort of question about the relationship between ignorance and culpability. She particularly emphasised wilful ignorance, but what about algorithmic or default ignorance?

On social media, many have connected the two stories through mutual finger-pointing at the perceived lack of outrage for one story or the other. But there is a stronger connection between the two events.

While elective abortion and trophy hunting are different issues surrounded by different ethical and political questions, both news stories offer — regardless of one’s views on either issue — an opportunity to consider the moral responsibility that comes with knowledge — and the moral responsibility that comes with willful ignorance…

…So perhaps the more important question is, when does one become morally culpable for ignorance?

… We readily accept that with knowledge comes responsibility. But both the Planned Parenthood and the lion slaying controversies show that at some point, even our willful ignorance confers the weight of moral responsibility.

How do ignorance, and the alternative, loving attention, work in terms of morality and ethics in a new media world? Do we need to deliberately seek knowledge, seek to pay attention to things, beyond a dead squirrel to be acting with virtue? Our eyes have the capacity to be more globally connected than ever before thanks to the Internet, but our hearts and minds are still as self-interested as ever. Does outrage serve some sort of ethical purpose in that it forces us, and others, to pay attention to things beyond ourselves, or is it simply an expression of selfishness, a knee-jerk defence when something attacks what we hold to be sacred, what we have chosen to worship with our attention?

Outrage seems to be one of the natural responses to paying attention to the disorder in our world. Just what can we give our attention to? Just how much attention do we have to go around?

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue

If you’re one of those people that struggles with how long the stuff I write is, now is your moment to be thankful. This post started off as a 7,000 word rambling journey through a series of connected thoughts.

Our world is broken. It is full of chaos. It appears, from our experience, to be disordered. Humans are part of this disorder, and we don’t like disorder. When we’re confronted with disorder it seems like our natural response is to get outraged. We use media, including the internet, to see, and give attention to disorder, and increasingly, we use media to express our outrage (as a means of drawing attention to disorder).

But how do we weigh up what to give our attention to?

How do we decide where to direct our outrage, and how to feel about the outrage of others, and if outrage itself is something to be outraged about?

If outrage itself has the capacity to become outrageous, then what’s an alternative, virtuous response to disorder?

On outrage, love, and attention

I think outrage both a human response to disorder, and a disordered form of love.

It’s disordered because unless we’re outraged about exactly the right thing, we simply create more disorder through misdirected outrage. Most of our love is disordered, because its the product of disordered hearts and minds. Love that isn’t disordered is love that doesn’t damage, and outrage causes damage.

It’s love, because it’s an attempt to give appropriate attention to something that matters. To love someone, or some thing, is to pay them, or it, attention that seeks this sort of understanding.

So, for example, the outrage about the shooting of Cecil the Lion is an expression of love, and a paying attention to, something beautiful that God made, but it is disordered because it results in an online lynch mob, hunting the hunter and literally calling for his hanging.

And, I’m suggesting that both our capacity for outrage, and our capacity to love — are tied up with what it means to be really human, and further, that what it means to be human is not a question we simply answer by our self for our self, but a question of shared humanity, humanity-in-relationship. Here’s a nice little quote from moral philosopher Iris Murdoch.

One might at this point pause and consider the picture of human personality, or the soul, which has been emerging. It is in the capacity to love, that is, to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called will, or willing belongs to this system. What counteracts this system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I wonder if our natural tendency towards outrage has a purpose, and is linked to our capacity to love. I wonder too, if there is a right thing to direct our outrage at, that makes outrage something not disordered, but a right response to disorder. I suspect the problem with the way we experience outrage is that we direct it at symptoms rather than an underlying cause, and we direct it at symptoms in the place of other forms of more constructive, loving, attention.

Does outrage serve a (good) purpose? And how do we decide what to be outraged about when faced with multiple examples of disorder?

These are questions that will be explored in the posts in this series. I wonder if the way we experience outrage, and the way we pursue the perfect thing to be outraged at, while trying to establish what this article My outrage is better than your outrage, in the Atlantic calls a “hierarchy of outrage” represents this inbuilt quest for the perfect thing to be outraged at, which means outrage itself might have a particular function or purpose that serves human flourishing. Perhaps this attempt to establish a hierarchy of outrage is actually our attempt to locate exactly what it is we should universally be outraged at…

The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground. Even when a dentist kills an adorable lion, and everyone is upset about it, there’s better outrage ground to be won. The most widely accepted hierarchy of outrage seems to be: Single animal injured < single animal killed < multiple animals killed < systematic killing of animals < systematic oppression/torture of people < systematic killing of humans < end of all life due to uninhabitable planet.

I’m asking these questions, like many others, in light of the outpouring of public, global, outrage at the death of Cecil the Lion, and, like many Christians, in the light of the apparent lack of public, global, outrage at some revelations about the way Planned Parenthood treat aborted foetuses.

There’s an additional factor in the hierarchy of outrage that we need to consider, and that is when outrage itself, or the way it manifests, becomes something we’re outraged (rightly) about. Here’s a little outrage equation. With a current real life example.

X = The death of Cecil the Lion
Y = The revelation that Planned Parenthood aren’t just offering abortion services where a life deemed to be ‘non-human’ is ended, they are selling the bi-products of this procedure to third parties as ‘human’ parts for commercial gain.
Z = People are outraged that others are outraged about X, but not about Y.

This tendency towards outrage is damaging. Not just to the people at the heart of the kerfuffle. It’s a trend. Check out Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for a sense of how harmful). The dentist who shot Cecil the Lion has become the latest victim of the Internet’s outrage cycle and shame culture. Did you know that PETA literally called for his hanging? Our outrage causes us to form online lynch mobs, harming those who raise our ire, and ourselves and our society, in the process.

The logic appears to go something like when Y is of greater moral value than X, we should not be outraged about X, but Y, so Z. But is this equation too simplistic? Perhaps we are right to search for an ultimate outrage, but we’re wrong to suggest that forms of outrage that might be explained by this outrage are illegitimate. Maybe all the things in our “hierarchy of outrage” are worth being outraged about, but maybe its because they’re all symptoms of a common ill.  Is it possible we should be outraged at both X and Y, and that this outrage should form part of our outrage at disordered life in this world, that our hierarchy of outrage is too small if we limit it to assessing symptoms, and that our sense of the right response to disorder in the world is outrage might be analogous to noticing symptoms, getting a diagnosis, but not treating the condition.

As the landscape for these moral, or ethical, conversations, the internet — and especially “social” media — seems to amplify our predisposition to get outraged, while giving us a new and increasingly dangerous and permanent platform to voice our outrage at the expense of a new sort of victim. It enables us to operate with a hierarchy of outrage like never before, it gives us the capacity to get outraged at low, or no, cost to ourselves but at huge cost to the victims of the mob. The internet is a shame culture. There’s a great article on Slate, responding to Ronson’s book, that explores the implications of this shift, and this piece titled The new puritan shame culture is also worth a read.

Outrage has never been cheaper. Where once you had to actually physically attend a protest to show that you were outraged. Now you click a button on a website, or fire off an e-petition. This isn’t a new idea. See Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker from 2010. But this was in the early days of online outrage, it looked at the bed we were making for ourselves, now we’re seeing what it is like to lie in this bed.

One thing that is inevitably true is that in the midst of our outrage, the internet and its collective mob, has a great tendency to forget the humanity of the person or people causing the outrage be they hunters, or abortion advocates and practitioners. The victims (the perpetrators of villainous acts) of public shaming are now legion, and our culture is shifting along with our media. This raises questions about what it looks like to be a virtuous citizen of this new landscape…

This series is an attempt to help chart a course through X, Y, and Z, by offering a version of virtue, or the good life, that works in the internet’s shame culture, and in our disordered world. Next, I’ll look at how the new media landscape shapes what it is we’re likely to pay attention to, ignore, or miss — the role social media plays in making outrage outrageous.

In a speech Dio Chrysostom gave in Tarsus he cited The Odyssey, describing the way Odysseus once entered a city, amidst the travails of his long journey, he suggests that sometimes the way a speaker is received says more about the receivers than the one arriving…

But if a man, having seen how much there is that is dreadful and hateful in the world, and that everywhere are countless enemies, both public and private, with whom wantonness and deceit hold sway,

Subdues his body with injurious blows,
Casts round his shoulders sorry rags, in guise
A slave, steals into the wide-wayed town of those
Who hold debauch,

meaning no harm to his neighbours — such as Odysseus meant to the suitors when he came in that guise — but on the contrary seeking if perchance he may unobtrusively do them some good — if, I say, such a man comes among you, why do you stir him up, or why do you call upon one who will appear to you to be a churlish and savage person as a speaker? For your ears have not been prepared for the reception of harsh and stubborn words; nay, as the hooves of cattle are tender when they are reared in soft, smooth country, so men’s ears are dainty when reared in the midst of flattery and lying speech.

It’s funny, because I reckon this is exactly how the cities Paul visited as an orator of the Cross would have seen him…

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods,once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Paul, in some ways, writes 2 Corinthians because he wasn’t well received in Corinth. Perhaps the Corinthians who get excited about the super-apostles are like cattle reared in soft smooth country, so that they can’t handle Paul’s jarring presentation of the truth.

I’m reading this first century orator named Dio Chrysostom (who, amongst other things, wrote a letter to Corinth complaining that they’d removed a statue of him). Here’s a fun quote from a thing he wrote called On Virtue.

“In fact, these men do not even believe in the existence of a knowledge in accordance with which they will know what they ought to do or what they ought not to do and how they will live correctly; nay, they believe that the laws are sufficient for them for that purpose, the laws on the statute books; but how they are to obey the laws and voluntarily do p147what those laws prescribe is a matter to which they give no serious thought. And yet how is he any less a thief who refrains from thieving out of fear, if he approves but does not loath and condemn the business, than those who actually commit theft — unless also he who does not do his thieving by day, not only after nightfall, is to be called no thief in daytime, but rather a man of probity? Besides, such persons require the presence of many to threaten and restrain them, since they are not able of themselves to refrain from their misdeeds, but even when at home are men of thievish disposition. However, though they are of such character, they choose the law-givers and punish the lawless, just as if persons who are unmusical were to choose the musicians, or as if those who know nothing of surveying were to choose the surveyors

And here is an indication of the depravity of mankind. If men were to do away with the laws and licence were to be granted to strike one another, to commit murder, to steal the property of one’s neighbours, to commit adultery, to be a footpad, then who must we suppose would be the persons who will refrain from these deeds and not, without the slightest scruple or hesitation, be willing to commit all manner of crimes? For even under present conditions we none the less are living unwittingly with thieves and kidnappers and adulterers and joining with them in the activities of citizenship, and in this respect we are no better than the wild beasts; for they too, if they take fright at men or dogs set to guard against them, refrain from thieving.”

I wonder if our current philosophers are able to look at the way humans behave, at our nature, and also come to the conclusion that human nature left to its own devices would produce vice, not virtue.

What follows is a collection of (speculative) thoughts, ideas, and questions from a novice church planter about church planting and evangelism

My college principal (and friend), Gary Millar, caused a bit of a stir on social media with this post asking whether the new, trendy, church-planting-is-the new-black, movement is taking the focus off evangelism in the church. I like Gary a lot, and learned much from him, and I think it’s funny that a guy who was a church planter prior to joining the academy is copping flack online for being anti-church plant. He’s not. He’s certainly pro-evangelism. And pro-church plant.

His post, and the subsequent discussion have been stimulating, and got me thinking some thoughts that I needed to put into words so that I don’t lose them. I feel like it’s a conversation I should be part of, even though I’m not the most experienced church planter in the world, and didn’t even want to be a church planter. I think one of the big challenges the church faces though is figuring out how to do church and evangelism for people of around my age, and younger, and I feel like maybe I can offer some insight here, especially because Gary mentions “QTC graduates who are planting in Brisbane” and that’s me, and there aren’t many of us. I feel like he was singling me out a bit with the bolded line in this paragraph too…

“Biblical church planting flows from evangelism, as the message of the gospel is clearly proclaimed in every possible context. Some of this proclamation may be cutting edge, but some of it may look extremely mundane—teaching Scripture in inner city schools, building intentional relationships with baristas and road-sweepers, inviting the faceless residents of the other units into our block for dinner, eating at the same time every week in the RSL, going to the annual show just to be there… And doing it all to make the most of every opportunity to speak the gospel to a world which desperately needs to hear it.”

Before I begin…

And a slight disclaimer: This is the stuff I’ve been mulling over since Gary’s post, and while reading (and entering) some of the discussions about his post. Some of this reads like its a vague critique of strawmen ministers out there, and you might want empirical evidence that such ministers or thinking exists… I’d like to offer you Exhibit A, the only exhibit I’ll be offering throughout (apart from my ability to accurately represent the aforementioned conversations).

Me.

I’ve assumed at some points that how I feel and think is representative of how others might feel and think. I know there’s great stuff happening out there in many churches, and in many locations, and I thank God for that… but this is also based on conversations I’ve had with others and things I’ve observed as a participant in various churches that have either planted churches with varying degrees of success, or suffered as a result of people leaving to join new churches.

On the necessity of more evangelism

I think most people in Gospel ministry, if asked “is enough evangelism happening” would, and should, say no. Right up until the time that 100% of living people are following the living God (the new creation we long for), the answer to this question is no. That’s why the parable of the lost sheep is so profound in how it values the lost. We live in an age where there are maybe three ‘found’ sheep, and 97 lost…

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” — Luke 15:1-7

So evangelism is necessary. And obviously it’s about pointing people to the good news. The ‘evangel.’ Which is the good news about Jesus.

But I wonder if we really need to figure out is what it is we mean by evangelism (both in content and form), before figuring out what the relationship is between the church, members of the church, and what a proper emphasis on evangelism in the church looks like.

Maybe the problem Gary identifies is more about how we think of church being somehow distinct from how we think of evangelism. Maybe the move to church planting is actually a shifting understanding of the relationship between church and mission

It could just be me, but I’m pretty sure that evangelism has slipped down our agenda. Church planting has, it seems, taken up the headspace that was once occupied by evangelism. And much as I love church planting (it’s what we did in Ireland), it does provide more places for people to hide who don’t want to talk about Jesus to their friends.

Churches in our circles, especially in Australia, tend to think about church as the gathering of believers for the sake of believers. Sundays are inward looking, they’ll often feature the Gospel pretty heavily, because we realise that the Bible is ultimately a story centred on Jesus and to teach bits of the Bible without the Gospel is to not teach the Bible properly… but this way of thinking, that the body gathers for the sake of itself, doesn’t really give much clarity on how mission, or evangelism, fits with the life and rhythms of the church. So preachers throw “tell your friends about Jesus” in as the application to most sermons, churches put on evangelistic events, and might, if they’re really organised, occasionally teach people how to have conversations about Jesus with their friends (and I can’t help but think we make this more complicated than it needs to be, I don’t need coaching to tell my friends about the new coffee place I found, or my love for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, even in a terrible year, perhaps people just need to be convinced that the need is urgent and that this isn’t something they have to do by themselves). Here are some things I think we forget that we need to remember.

1. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10).

If the Zacchaeus story is the culmination of a bunch of stories that show who Jesus thinks the lost are — sinners who know they need a saviour —then this climaxes at the Cross, and in the resurrection. The reason to think this is how this verse should be understood, as a summary of Jesus’ lifelong journey to Jerusalem, is that Luke tells the Zaccheaus story in a way that ties together a bunch of different lost ‘types’ we’ve met on this journey.

2. Jesus sent the Spirit to the Church so that we could be united with him, and then sent the church into the world the way God sent him. (John 17, John 20).

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the worldMy prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:18, 20-23

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” — John 20:19-23

What’s interesting, I think, is if the prologue of John’s Gospel (the first 18 verses) sets up the themes of the Gospel, the way God sent Jesus is as the life-giving word who becomes flesh and dwells in the world (John 1:1-5, 14).

3. The Church is the body of Christ (and God gives gifts to the body to help it be the body). Part of being the body is corporately imitating Jesus in seeking the salvation of many.

Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 12. If the letter makes sense as a whole, I don’t think it’s a massive jump to link the stuff he says in 12, with the stuff he says in chapters 9-11, and 13-14, to figure out how people might do together what he sees as imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1).

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” —1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Perhaps we have a problem if the way we understand church (ecclesiology) is not deeply connected to the way we think church should be oriented to the world (missiology). I think the short shrift evangelism gets in our reformed evangelical churches in Australia is a product of us thinking that church is a community for believers, not that the church is the community of the people of God for the world. Church isn’t just a Sunday gathering (or a gathering), but the way we gather, and what we invest in, will reflect what we think church is.

Evangelism is necessarily proclamation, but it’s not necessarily something an individual does as an individual. It necessarily involves words, but words are amplified or cancelled out by the actions and emotions of the proclaimer(s). Evangelism is more than saying “Jesus is Lord” — it’s living this truth together in a way that is intentionally compelling and persuasive to the people we dwell with.

Maybe, then, we proclaim the Gospel as we live it out in our community, as community, and speak clearly about why we live the way we do, because of points 1, 2, and 3 above.

If you think the church exists to proclaim the Gospel, and church communities exist to do that in particular places and cultures — then the dichotomy breaks down. Church planting is evangelism. That’s why we preach about Jesus every Sunday at the church plant I’m part of, and in our established mothership. If churches are missionary communities gathering to reach and serve a hostile culture, not simply the place where everyone from a culture is expected to rock up for an event on a Sunday to tick some sort of box, where evangelism is another checkbox on the “good Christian” to do list, then the dichotomy at the heart of Gary’s post gets resolved a bit.

It’s only in churches that don’t think of church or evangelism in this way that this conversation is a problem.

Evangelism has to be something that stretches beyond the Gospel being clearly proclaimed on a Sunday, it has to be part of the lives and relationships of Christians in community in their wider community.

Maybe there’s also a more complete approach to the content of evangelism (the Gospel) than exclusively emphasising the atonement, which also changes the forms of evangelism we look for, develop, and promote?

I don’t hear of many churches who are doing evangelism training these days.

Maybe what’s happening is we’re realising that evangelism training isn’t actually about learning to draw stick figures in six boxes, but is more about authentically living and sharing the Gospel story in the places we live and the relationships we develop?

Maybe part of this is because we think the Gospel is something best shared by a community of people — the body of Christ —  rather than individuals by themselves, apart from that community. Evangelism will always involve individual people boldly proclaiming and living the good news of the resurrected Lord Jesus, but we don’t have to feel like it’s something we do on our own (nor is it something just for specialists).

Maybe we’re realising that the Gospel isn’t best summarised as “Jesus died to save you (individual) from your (individual) sins (of which there is a long list)” but “Jesus is Lord of God’s kingdom and he calls you to turn to him as Lord (forgiveness of sins is then a benefit of this)”… maybe the way to present this isn’t a series of propositions or leading questions about an individual’s sin and the judgment they face, which Jesus takes (though this is part of it), but, instead, is a compelling presentation of the Biblical narrative which centres on Jesus and flows to us.

We have a really powerful story, and the opportunity to invite people to be a part of it. I really enjoyed this post today from First Things about how to reach cynical Gen X. Here’s a long quote from it. Feel free to jump to the next heading…

So you’re in quite a pickle: you can’t tell us that the Church has “the Truth,” and we know that the Church won’t miraculously cure us of our misery. What do you have left to persuade us? One thing: the story. We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas. Our surrogate parents were the TV and the VCR, and we can spew out entertainment trivia at the drop of a hat. We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they’re the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives. You wonder why we’re so self-destructive, but we’re looking for the one story with staying power, the destruction and redemption of our own lives. That’s to your advantage: you have the best redemption story on the market.

Perhaps the only thing you can do, then, is to point us towards Golgotha, a story that we can make sense of. Show us the women who wept and loved the Lord but couldn’t change his fate. Remind us that Peter, the rock of the Church, denied the Messiah three times. Tell us that Pilate washed his hands of the truth, something we are often tempted to do. Mostly, though, turn us towards God hanging on the cross. That is what the world does to the holy. Where the cities of God and Man intersect, there is a crucifixion. The best-laid plans are swept aside; the blueprints for the perfect society are divided among the spoilers. We recognize this world: ripped from the start by our parents’ divorces, spoiled by our own bad choices, threatened by war and poverty, pain and meaninglessness. Ours is a world where inconvenient lives are aborted and inconvenient loves are abandoned. We know all too well that we, too, would betray the only one who could save us.

Also, while I was writing this post, Stephen McAlpine chucked his latest post up, which is also relevant and provocative.

Maybe this needs to come with a shifting sense of what evangelism looks and sounds like in a post-modern/post-Christian context

Maybe stories resonate better with a post-Christian world and the way people think about life in it. Maybe while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is an essential part of the Gospel, this is a little individualistic in its approach to the Gospel (in its content), which might make us think a little bit too individualistically about evangelism (in its form). Perhaps a slightly different nuance on the Gospel that captures both the corporate and the individual implications while utterly emphasising the person and work of Jesus, especially his divinity, his humanity, and his life, death and resurrection (content) could reshape the way we talk about and practice evangelism in our churches — be they plants or established communities.

I don’t want to unnecessarily caricature the evangelism in Sydney from 13 years ago as Two Ways To Live, but Gary did this a bit for me…

“13 years ago, I made my first trip to Sydney. I came at the invitation of John Chapman and David Mansfield to spend a month working with the Dept. of Evangelism in the Sydney Diocese. It was a real eye-opener for me. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly.”

I think Two Ways to Live has been a fantastic servant for many years, and it represents a modernist/individual approach to evangelism and the Gospel. I think it has had its day, and if we’re going to train people to evangelise we need to think pretty carefully about what that looks like. We need people who walk around imitating Jesus, like Paul did, not people walking around spouting tracts or training material.

Two Ways to Live simply assumes too much that doesn’t mesh with modern Australia. It starts by assuming that the person you’re talking to believes in a creator God. Maybe this is based on the assumption that the kind of suppressing the knowledge of God that Romans speaks about is deliberate and intentional on the part of the person doing it, not something that happens corporately or culturally, maybe people relying on this material think the people who reject that concept have already ruled themselves out of hearing the Gospel through this choice (I hope not)…

TWTL works on getting people to assent to a bunch of propositions that lead to a particular conclusion. I think this method has had its day. I understand that others disagree — especially those who hate post-modernism and think people should be assenting to truth based on very clearly articulated, logical argument.

I think post-modern evangelism needs to rest more on helping people see who God actually is (that he’s not some being-in-creation, subject to the laws of nature, but the being within whom nature exists), helping them see how his plans and purposes for the universe, which centre on Jesus, include them, and helping demonstrate the plausibility of belief in Jesus, and the beauty and appeal of living life as a member of his kingdom. This isn’t the sort of thing you learn in a course, or can necessarily articulate in an adversarial large scale debate, or a conversation at a pub. Event evangelism, like the stuff Gary talks about, has a place, but it’s part of a suite of tools that a person might use in the context of a relationship with a non-believer they hope to see won to Christ.

And personally I think both the way we posture ourselves, and our content/emphasis, needs to shift gears a bit too — for an example of what I’m talking about see the difference I loved between how William Lane Craig debated with Lawrence Krauss (where I thought Krauss won) and how Rory Shiner approached his conversation with Krauss (where Rory Shiner was “gently crucified”— which I think is a substantial win).

How can we shift the way we train people to evangelise to actually speak the language of the people around us. Like Jesus did, and like Paul did as he imitated him?

 

I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship)

We all know that transfer growth is something we should be seen to be against (even if we quietly say ‘But you know what? They’ll be much better off in our church anyway!’). But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up… None of us wants to steal people from other churches (although a little bit of recruiting key people from other ministries is almost always necessary in the start-up phase).

I think this is interesting. I don’t just want to be seen to be against transfer growth. I’ve been part of small and large churches that have lost people to the next cool thing. I’ve thought about those churches as parasitic. I have. So I don’t want to be that church. I’m not interested in our church being the latest and greatest church that people move to until a newer, greater church starts up (as it inevitably will, because, you know, City on A Hill is coming next year). Here’s where I think Gary and I would absolutely agree about our patch of Australia. Brisbane is massive, and it’s projected to get even bigger. The city is going to grow to 3 million people by 2020. The reason it feels like we don’t need more trendy, evangelical, church plants in inner city Brisbane, the reason we wring our hands, is because honestly most of us are still trying to figure out how to do ministry in modern Australia. We can’t rely on turning on some lights and putting on a good kids program anymore. The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city… focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity. Church plants can’t afford not to be on about evangelism (but neither can the established church).

But here’s the rub. Say my small church really goes gangbusters on evangelism, and say God blesses that effort, and say we triple in size from new converts. Who takes the responsibility for pastoring these new hundreds? Who shepherds them, who answers their questions? Where do we get the manpower from? Where do we find mature Christians if not the churches around us. Maybe if there were genuine innovative partnerships happening between churches the answers to these questions would obviously be “the church next door” — the one thing I reckon Gary absolutely nails in his post is the idolisation of numbers in church planting.

“It’s hard for those of us who aren’t church planting to appreciate just how big an issue ‘numbers’ is for those who are. Let’s face it – when you meet someone who is in a recently launched church plant, what’s the first question you want to ask?”

But it’s not just established churches that care about numbers. I ask every minister I meet how church is going, and what I mean is “how are numbers.” Almost every minister I know answers based on numbers  — and that means we’re very unlikely to be excited about not just releasing, but proactively sending, people to serve in another nearby church, be it for a season, or permanently.

At South Bank, we’re in a position where our leadership team is praying for some mature, gospel hearted, Christians to plug in with us to support new Christians. Especially new Christians from the margins of our community. These can only come from elsewhere. But where I think the transfer stuff gets messy is when people proactively seek those sort of people from other churches as they look to establish a core group. I’m happy to pray and to trust God to provide the people where necessary while we train and equip the people he’s already provided for us. So far our “transfer growth” has largely come from people relocating to Brisbane.

How do we figure out how to co-operate across churches to make sure new sheep are being cared for and fed? What does it look like for churches to partner together so that we don’t think of “sheep stealing” but “shepherd sharing”?

Maybe the reason evangelism and church planting seems like a dichotomy is because the way church planting happens is (sometimes) broken

If we played a word association game with the words around the church planting discussion, what image would pop up in your head? What do you blurt out before your brain pops into gear? Let’s try.

Church plant?

Probably a new set up with better branding, a nicer website, and a cooler pastor than you, meeting in some funky “third place” in a suburb more trendy than yours. Am I wrong?

Not all church plants are like this. Lots of them are tedious. But the ones that get all the attention because their pastors add friends and followers online if there’s even the hint of a second or third degree of separation between you and them are like this… some of the time.

Play the game with “church planter” and, well, the picture isn’t much different. Before (and during) college I had a particular set of words reserved for church planters, not many of them were nice.

Most would-be church planters take themselves too seriously, and don’t take the (established) church seriously enough. They also don’t tend to be realistic about just how hard it is to be the church in post-Christian Australia. We can’t all plant megachurches, nor should we want to. But most would be planters seem to think they need the branding/corporate identity of a mega church. I don’t mean my friends. Obviously. And I think the assessment processes of the bigger evangelical planting networks weed this out. But the perception is shaped by those people who self-identify as church planters before they’ve even designed a logo or married a hot wife (see my now ancient post on how to church plant, but if you want a funky name you can also pick a sanctified one word verb, previously reserved for conferences, or, as seems to be the case with hipster plants, a solid sort of noun that connects you to something even more solid, if you’re really stuck you could use the Hipster Business Name Generator).

Too often church plants happen in a way that dismisses the work of the established church — be it traditional churches or denominations — and this sort of differentiation comes at the cost of both the new and the old, the new because it can cut off support from the establishment, or just irk the people flogging their guts in those churches, and the old because there’ll always be a percentage of people in those churches feeling just disgruntled enough to get up and leave (which is where bad transfer growth happens). I say this reflecting a little (contritely) on how my own plant was promoted both in house, and online. There were people who had their noses put out of joint by the suggestion we needed new and different approaches to church. Typically from churches that are going pretty well and have reached a sort of critical mass.

Here are some things I hope everyone in this conversation agrees with, that change the nature of church and evangelism.

1. Australia is increasingly non-Christian. Post-Christian. Post-Christian people feel like they know what church is, but often have no idea what the Gospel is.

2. Many churches have not changed their methodologies significantly (especially outside the cities, but not only those outside cities) in response to this fairly rapid shift. Some want to, but don’t really know how. Sometimes this is because the change experienced in 1 happens slower outside the cities.

3. By the time the church catches up to change, the change will probably have changed again. Leaving us behind. And the pace of change feels like it is increasing.

4. The result of 1-3 is we need more churches being churches differently, but still proclaiming the Gospel, if we want to reach Australia.

What would it look like if we weren’t anxious about church planting in our neighbourhood but genuinely celebrated it? It happens sometimes, but even the people publicly celebrating are perhaps privately anxious (I know I am, especially about what newer, cooler churches will do to our capacity for transfer growth).

What would it look like for church plants to be supported by existing churches with people and resources even if those churches aren’t in a sort of mothership relationship? I think there are some great examples of this new paradigm in the Brisbane Presbyterian scene?

No Church (plant) is an island. Whatever church plants do it shouldn’t be done in isolation from established churches and networks

When planting happens best, churches plant churches. If churches are investing in planting churches, and partnering with the myriad planting networks and using planting resources from these networks, to put churches in more parts of Australia, then this is evangelism. It’s possible the church hasn’t stopped doing evangelism. It’s changed tactics.

I think the “churches plant churches” mantra is great. Especially in my experience. But I’d love us to get to the stage where “the Church plants churches” — where we all celebrate when new churches start (obviously, and its a shame I feel like I need to qualify, I mean churches that show they’re part of the body of Christ by presenting the good news about Jesus, you don’t need to celebrate every time someone puts up a sign that says “church”).

What if we were able to celebrate like this even if that church started in our suburb or town (so long as they start outside of the eastern suburbs of Sydney)? What if we looked at the number of people we’re completely ill-equipped to reach in our area and figure out what it might look like to share resources (including people), rather than competing? Where we view other churches at partners in the Gospel with such familial affection that we might even encourage our own people to patch over and serve there if it’s a better geographic fit, or the unique mission/vibe of that church is a better fit for a person, or just if the need is there and the person is willing to serve.

We need a big umbrella to do that, and I think denominations need to play a part in this because they’re the best set up, organisationally to do it. Too many church plants are independent, and this is an indictment on the denominations that have been suspicious of church planting, or worried about ‘protecting’ established churches. What do we need to protect geographic areas from? More Gospel converts?

But I don’t think denominations are the solution by themselves. I like the idea that church planting isn’t something that we leave to young, restless punks who have a bone to pick with the ‘establishment’ (no matter how well assessed they might be), or something we leave to a few innovative churches to do by themselves, or something that denominations set a budget for that happens in an ad hoc way… this is why I love it when groups like the Geneva Push and Acts 29 try to have a big enough umbrella to allow different groups and individuals to contribute to starting new churches. The more the group ‘sending’ the church planter looks like the universal church — the broader the ‘gospel coalition’ —and the less it looks like a random action of some splinter cell, the better.

If churches are being planted by churches that believe that the church being the church is a significant part of evangelism, then the church planting conversation doesn’t happen at the expense of the evangelism conversation. It is the evangelism conversation.

How do we reinvent the way we do church, and start new churches, so that new and old churches benefit from the reinvention? Maybe the answer to this question is tied up in the way Paul talks about (and fundraises for) mission to new places, and for the established church in Jerusalem in his letters (Romans 15, 2 Corinthians 8-9). I don’t know how sustainable it is to suggest the more established churches are owed respect and recognition in the way Paul wants new Gentile churches to recognise the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:27-28), but there could be something there…

We’ve got to try new stuff somewhere, and perhaps it’s easier to innovate in a new church.

I’ve grown up being part of some great churches, soaked in the Gospel. But I didn’t head off to college and into ministry because I wanted to see those churches duplicated. Well. Not completely. I wanted to see those churches produce fruit via the lives of the people shaped by those communities and the Gospel DNA. People like me.

I don’t want churches I lead to be clones of the churches that shaped me, nor do I want the church I’m part of to simply be a projection of the things I like. I hope we all feel the same. That we don’t want churches we’re part of to address the Australia of the past, but the part of Australia we’re in in the present, in a way that makes Jesus and his cross-centered story of redemption come alive as we embody him and live it. I hope we want to be a part of church communities that pass on the DNA that allows our ‘children’ (be they future churches, or our literal offspring), to shape the way church participates in the Australia of the future.

While the Gospel message doesn’t change, I believe there is continuity in terms of the beliefs the church has received because the Gospel has been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, if we did church like my grandparents did church when they were kids, or like my dad did church when he was a kid, for my kids, my kids would not want to stick with church. But most churches get comfortable with their culture, and somehow baptise their practices as the “traditional” way of doing church. Being part of a church plant lets you at least tilt at a few windmills, or tip a few sacred cows over without too much damage. And gives other churches something to look at as a way forward.

Here’s an analogy. Parents know their kids need to eat good healthy food if they’re going to survive in the big, wide, world as adults. You can’t survive on KFC alone (trust me. I’ve tried). So a good parent teaches their kids to cook before letting them leave the nest.

Sometimes that child doesn’t figure out their identity, or what food they like, until leaving home. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing out on until you’re out there experimenting, or eating at new places in new neighbourhoods, with new people. This variety can be a massive danger, and might stop parents letting a child leave home, or stop a child taking the risk of leaving, but sometimes the teenager moves out of home, tries a delicious new sort of food, and brings it back to the family home and everybody benefits. This is only a benefit when there’s nothing unhealthy about this new food and its simply because the family home didn’t think or know about the option that it hasn’t always been on the menu.

That’s the sort of benefit that might happen if church plants are seen a bit like teenagers leaving home and growing towards adulthood as members of the family… rather than like teenagers who feel like they need to run away, or have been kicked out.

Maybe the reason evangelism doesn’t look like it’s working is that the people in the conversation tend to be focused on people just like us

I quoted Gary’s picture of the life lived evangelistically above. And I reckon it’s a great starting point. But I think we need to come to terms with the idea that white, middle class, post-Christian Australia doesn’t really want to listen to us anymore and doesn’t think we should have any particularly privileged place in society or their lives (think the place of religious ceremony in the calendar of the average Aussie). Even if they tick “Christian” on the census, Australians aren’t getting married in church, aren’t really going to church at Christmas and Easter, and aren’t making every day decisions with reference to Jesus Christ.

Evangelism seems really hard if you think evangelism is about converting your best buddies. And certainly you should hope to convert your best buddies. But our best buddies tend to be wise, powerful, wealthy types. If we’re honest about our wealth (and if you’re reading a 5,000 word blog post you probably fit that bill). Why do we think this should be the standard makeup of our churches? Paul didn’t seem surprised that the church in Corinth didn’t look anything like Corinth’s middle class.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. — 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

The middle class makeup of our churches is a vestige of the social privilege that came with Christendom, and as we lose that we need to be prepared for a shift in the demographic of our church communities. Not in a way that wipes out the middle and upper classes. Paul expects some people from these echelons to be part of the church (and to play their part), but in a way that upsets the default, and changes the way we think about how and where to do evangelism, and how to measure success.

Evangelism has to involve talking to people just like you. Your friends and family. Your neighbours. People who think like you and like the same stuff as you. But I don’t think we can afford for it to be limited to that… We need to break the shackles of our own personal affinities and start getting out of our comfort zones a little. I think this will be made easier because the people in our comfort zones or “target demographics” might not want to listen to us any more.

All evangelism is hard. For the reasons Paul spells out above. What we’re saying looks and sounds stupid. But the wisdom and power of God rests in us looking stupid to those who want worldly wisdom and power. And who doesn’t want worldly wisdom and power?

Why aren’t more churches working at the margins of society? You know who wants to know Jesus? International students, asylum seekers, and other people we forget in our comfortable little enclaves. I don’t know for certain where the vast majority of church plants happen, or who they try to reach – but I bet it trends urban/suburban, and trends trendy, and trends towards Sydney’s eastern suburbs if you’re a Moore College graduate or an Acts 29 planter in Sydney.

It’s hard to figure out how effective evangelism is when most of our human resources (think people being paid to do Gospel ministry in Australia) are in a relatively small pocket of a relatively big city, in an incredibly geographically diverse and increasingly culturally diverse nation.

 

There’s a difference between making media and putting it on the Internet, and making media for the Internet. ‘New Media’ is the stuff that falls into the latter category.

Joshua Topolsky has done some cool stuff online. He co-started The Verge, and then its spin-off, Vox. Before going to work for Bloomberg. He knows his stuff. Here’s a quote I read tonight where he talks about the way the Internet is currently working (as part of his announcement that he’s leaving Bloomberg to do something new).

The reality in media Eventually is that there is an enormous amount of noise. There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs. In both execution and content, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rat race for maximum audience at any expense. It’s cynical and it’s cyclical — which makes for an exhausting and frankly boring experience.

I think people want something better, something more meaningful. Something a lot less noisy.

We made Painfully Ordinary and innovative things at The Verge and Vox Media, we made Painfully Ordinary and innovative things at Bloomberg, but I don’t think I got even close to what’s possible. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface.

This is why I don’t really want to write under the umbrella of a group blog or the Aussie Christian versions of Vox/Buzzfeed etc, the sort of set up that wants you to write short, punchy, posts that ape those successful secular online outlets. You know. List posts that are less than 8,000 words long, with headlines that create a curiosity gap. Or just things that are interested in capturing eye-balls. Christian eye-balls. But we’ll get to that…

There’s a place for that stuff, obviously, and people want to read short things. I get that (hey Mikey Lynch). But if everybody looks (and writes) the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other. And we’d end up with a pretty boring internet, and worse, boring Christians who think in short lists and punchy soundbites.

I worry that too many Christian ‘news’ websites, or blogs, here, but especially abroad, get caught up in this competition for ‘all the audience’ and that we’re guilty of many of the bad things Topolsky identifies. It’s less of a problem in our egalitarian Aussie landscape, where we’re less into celebrity Christian pastors than elsewhere (but only marginally, and partly because the size of our market doesn’t justify it). We love traffic. We love attention. We love a platform that maximises our exposure (though probably within the community we belong to, and seek recognition in).

Here’s a problem I have. It’s my problem, but it’s a problem I have with how Christians use the Internet.

If a Christian wants to find some resources for thinking about how they might talk to someone in the real, 21st century, world about Jesus. And how they might do it online. There are tonnes of sites and posts that meet that need. Everyone wants to talk about talking about Jesus, there are very few prominent, curated, web platforms where people are talking about Jesus for the sake of people who don’t know him. Or writing things that people can share. There’s CPX. But it’s a pretty high end sort of operation, and they tend to emphasise traditional media platforms and adopt a traditional media approach – their credibility comes from authority, qualifications, and gravitas. They’re an incredibly important outlet, but they’re not Buzzfeed.

Where are the real, human, presentations of the compelling message of the Gospel as it shapes a persuasive, joyful, cross-shaped life that shows what it looks like to live in and appreciate God’s good world, as his people? Who is putting flesh and blood on the propositions we want to reinforce about the Gospel in the real world. Rather than just asserting them  no matter how poetically and beautifully they are asserted. And let’s face it. The quality of writing at some of these new Christian sites is astoundingly good. They’ve sort of cannibalised the pre-existing Christian blogosphere and captured all the brilliant writers (except Stephen McAlpine. And Arthur and Tamie. And others… my point is that there are a lot of people who used to hang their writing shingle on a solo blogspot now writing on these platforms). And that’s great.

Except for that lingering question, and the sense, at least in my opinion, that we don’t need more Christian book reviews that come from people with a closer proximity to our theology (who reads books anymore anyway? I read chapters of books, then buy ten new books on Amazon.com). Book summaries might be a better bet. Here’s ten things this book would teach you if you bothered to read it… (that’s why videos that promote books are now, I think, more important than the books they promote, if they can crystallise a book’s thesis). Or better still. Book reviews that engage with what a non-Christian might think and feel if someone shoved a book in their hand. Reviews that ask “does this book actually resonate with the real world and present the experience and beliefs of non-Christians in a way that suggests it understands them”? Or book reviews about literature, pop novels, and non-fiction books from outside the Christian bubble. Or. As a crazy thought. Things written about cultural texts that don’t try to slam them through a Gospel grid, trying to find Jesus in Superman, but instead let art do what art does, hold up a mirror to the world and ask questions of us, and what it means to be human. Why don’t we spend more time coming at art as humans, and less time trying to make art bring God to us? It might actually get us to that destination earlier…

I know this is all a caricature, and there are plenty of exceptions out there that do exactly what I’m suggesting here. Sporadically. Posted on these platforms and then buried under Ten reasons Gospel Ministry is more important than shoemaking. Which is another caricature. But how about changing the emphasis? What if, instead of wanting every member of a small circle to be our audience, and competing for attention time with our base, we wanted some members of a much larger pool of people to be our audience? What if our Christian base become the people who feature in, write, share, and discuss that content, rather than just being readers?

It’s all well and good to say we need this other content too, and it’s a both/and… but where is the and happening? I reckon it’s currently in three places. Local church websites. The Bible Society’s Eternity mag. The Centre for Public Christianity. There are great things being written and produced in all of these places, but none of them are ‘new media’ at their core. None of them are built with an eye to frictionless sharing and storytelling. The kind of site Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti (here’s where he explains the architecture of a social web product, sort of), or Vox’s Joshua Topolsky would build. Here’s something Peretti says about how to approach the Internet as something new and different.

“…Some of what you were describing earlier about digital publishers being small relative to the traditional media and relative to television, actually it’s because early-stage digital publishers have stayed too close to print. They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s add a little video,” but when they add video it’s like they are trying to be TV, but it’s not quite as good as regular TV.

The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, “What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?” If they said, instead, “What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world, where things can be interactive, like quizzes—in that kind of a world, what should a media company be?”

He knows what he’s talking about. Just like Topolsky. Peretti didn’t just build Buzzfeed, he also co-founded the Huffington Post.

I do wonder sometimes if our Aussie reformed, evangelical, group blogs* (which tend to write inwards focused content, for Christians who already belong to a particular circle, or tradition), are missing the opportunities presented by the social web (and often missing the nature of the social web as opposed to traditional broadcast media). The ABC’s Religion and Ethics page is an exception when it comes to thought-provoking content written by Christians for non-Christians in a place they might read (though it, by its very nature, is not an outlet exclusively for reformed, evangelical, thought). But I’m not sure the ABC Religion and Ethics page is ever going to reinvent the way content is delivered online, and do it in a way that both captures the social ennui of new media, or does it with enough street-cred to appeal to people who aren’t already interested in discussing Religion and Ethics.

Let me stress, especially given the not-ideal timing of this post, which coincides with the official launch of the Gospel Coalition Australia, that we need sites that produce, curate, and distribute great content to Christians, by trustworthy Christians, on the Internet. The Australian version of the Gospel Coalition website has been a breath of fresh air in many ways. But it won’t win the Internet for Christians. And the warning from Topolsky’s quote applies to the noisy nature of the Christian webosphere too.

It seems to me that we’re in desperate need of an approach to content generation that values expertise and wisdom (and the virtues of traditional media), but also cultivates the innovative presentation of the Gospel to others using both new mediums and a social/user-generated approach to content production and distribution (capturing the Most Unexceptional bits of the ‘democratised’ social media landscape). And it’d be nice if we weren’t just interested in writing to people who probably already agree with us, and if we were able to do it in a way that was a little less modernist, and a little more adventurous.

In the past it was Christians who led the way in thinking about how to use new communication mediums to persuade people about the goodness of the Gospel. Think Luther and the printing press for an obvious example. But early television and radio was filled with Christian programming (the quality of Christian television and radio content rapidly deteriorated, in part because evangelicals abandoned the platforms).

When it comes to how we re-tool our use of the Internet for people who don’t already belong to our circle… here’s my opinion. Let me stress. OPINION. Thoughts that are mine. They are subjective. They are not definitive… They are vibey. They are broadstroked. They don’t apply to every thing ever published everywhere… but possibly apply to a trend that represents the bits I’ve read from places like this…

It’d be nice if our writers were a little less sure of themselves (he asserts) and a little more interested in asking or prompting questions we don’t already think we know the answer to, wouldn’t it? (he asks, knowing the answer he wants to this question).

It’d be nice if it all felt a little bit more social, like if the people who write posts actually want to hear comments and questions, like they want to engage in a conversation beyond the definitive word they lay down (in a pithy post too short to be the definitive word about anything), like they leave us with questions they genuinely want answers to as well, where those answers are crowdsourced.

It’d be nice for us to acknowledge some complexity and when we deal with a tricky question not try to answer it in 750 words (there are questions you can’t tackle in list form. Like: 10 reasons the problem of evil is not really a problem for genuine Christians —which is not a real post, I made it up).

It’d be nice to give people a platform for telling their stories about life following Jesus and what some tricky and complex situations in life teach us about following Jesus, or leave us questioning… I know some of these sites do this occasionally. But those are the Most Unexceptional bits. Think Dave Jensen’s recent testimony published via Eternity.

It’d be nice if articles on these sites were a little more interlinked to other articles on the site, or other conversations on the web, beyond the platform (and the people who are ‘in’ the circle). Highlighting what’s trending elsewhere in a box is nice. But there are too many conversation starters published on these sites, and not enough bits of genuine conversing.

It’d be nice if more of us cultivated the practice of slow blogging. A practice I once ridiculed as I sought to post thousands of bits of rubbish here a year.

It’d be nice if we provided space, and opportunities, for some innovative collaborative thinking about how we might integrate different bits of professional acumen with the Christian faith, rather than just getting a bunch of preachers to write stuff that they think about in the study (says the preacher, from his study — or his laptop).

What if our evangelical internet outposts actually represented that we believe in a priesthood of all believers? What if we did something different, rather than just trying to do the stuff we know works so long as we use a metric like audience share, and measure it against our existing audience?

I’d love ideas that move towards this sort of use of the Internet. I’d love examples of Christian sites that look, feel, and function more like Vox than news.com.au (I really like a site called Christ And Pop Culture, but even it has its limits). It may be that Christians should actually start submitting articles to Buzzfeed (and liking, sharing, and discussing it when someone does), or Medium. I read a great Buzzfeed post about small group Bible study culture.

*Naming names (and elephants in the room) — the Gospel Coalition and Thinking of God, but, to further describe the elephant, this post was prompted solely by that quote and not because the Gospel Coalition Australia launched in Brisbane tonight. I have been percolating some of these thoughts about the Christian blogosphere for a little while now though, so the timing is interesting. 

** Seriously, what non-Christian is going to read an article when they see the link says gospelcoalition or thinkingofgod. I know there’s a time and place for writing to Christians, I’m doing it now, and on a blog with an even more obscure name. But I’m suggesting a radical rethink of the way we use the web.

 

“Ok. Let’s start CPR”

Breath.

We take it for granted right up until the moment that it is gone.

I’m in hospital this week, celebrating the incredible miracle of new life. New breath. For the third time I was there. Physically. Emotionally. Present. There. In the room. Waiting. Watching. Listening.  There, as a mouth opened, and filled a set of lungs with oxygen for the first time.

breath

Breathe little girl.

Thankfully, our little one, has not required CPR. But in a hospital there are many who do. In hospital, life and death exist as the start or end point of different journeys. Hospitals beat airports when it comes to the scale of human emotions. When I walk the corridors I remember the training I was given for news reading — bizarrely — whether its bad news or good, people like the comforting empathy of a warm smile. The smile conveys a subliminal wink and a nod, from a third party, to the idea that life will go on, that everything will pan out. Even if its patently obvious that it won’t. Even if it’s clear that everything has, or will, change. I walk around the hospital with my empathetic newsreader smile plastered on my face, trying not to make eye contact. Just in case. But I listen as I walk. Because the hospital experience, tied up as it is with life and death, is something that feels almost sacred.

“OK, let’s start CPR.”

Life is incredible, and, linked as it is to breathing, breath is incredible. The capacity for the very atmosphere that surrounds us to sustain life is remarkable. Yet like good typography, breath often goes unnoticed. We take it for granted.

I notice it when I’m short of it — in the throes of exercise, or on a cold winter’s night as my mild asthma starts constricting my chest — but other than that its simply automatic. I find myself thinking about breathing if I’m trying to exercise some control over something that I feel like I ought to be more invested in, when I feel the need to still my heart and my thoughts, or when I want to sneak out of a sleeping child’s room unnoticed.

But breath is a miracle.

Breathe little girl.

Nothing reminds you of that faster than a hospital. Where breath is there one moment, and gone the next. Or, more happily, where a breath is taken for the first time.

My newest progeny, Elise, is three days old now. She is alive. She is healthy. She breaths. She is a wonder to me. A beautiful marvel (just like Sophia and Xavier before her).  I’ve spent three days reflecting on that moment where her mouth and lungs opened to receive breath, autonomously, for the first time. It’s true, of course, that Elise has been living on vicariously delivered oxygen for many months now. But this was life without breath. Another miracle.

Breathe little girl. 

It’s interesting how much you pay attention to the breath of another. One that you love. Whether its the breathing of a loved one, a spouse or significant other, when you’re in close proximity, or the breath of a child whose life you suddenly feel (and are) responsible for. There’s some sort of nerve-jangling response hardwired into a parent that comes as an automatic response to every cough, whimper, or choking sound. Nothing gets you breathing faster than hearing something abnormal in the breathing of your child. And yet I have no idea how many times I’ve inhaled or exhaled while writing this sentence. Have you counted your breaths while reading this? Of course not. Though maybe you will. And every breath counts.

Our breaths are numbered — whether by an all knowing divine being, or simply by the period of time we’re alive, and the number of times we inhale and exhale before expiring — we only breath a certain, finite, number of times in this world.

As I write these words I’m sitting next to my wife, Robyn, watching Elise sleep and listening to her breath. Listening for abnormalities. Sure. But listening and celebrating the marvel that is human life.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.

Breathing is so fundamental to our human experience.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

These words are a terrifying reminder that one day breathing will cease. For me. For you. That breath will leave your body for one last time, leaving it, if you can believe what you see in the movies, 21 grams lighter. But dead. Lifeless. 21 grams might not be the weight of the soul, that’s a weird sort of dualism that leaves body and soul more separate than I believe they are. But, if that movie (21 Grams) is right, it is the material difference between a dead person and a live person.

Whatever you believe the soul is, that which vivifies a bunch of cells, it departs with your last breath.

Death sucks. It’s like a black hole that sucks the life and oxygen out of what would otherwise be a pretty spectacular universe.

“Ok, Let’s start CPR”

I heard these words as I walked the corridors of the hospital, on my way from my living, breathing, miracle to the cafeteria which serves up a bunch of salty deep-fried rubbish, and sugar — delicious though it all is — that will inevitably lead to a few fewer breaths for me if I keep indulging in them.

As I left the maternity ward I was aware of a piercing, repeating, alarm, and a bit of motion around the doors of a room at the end of the corridor in the ward I walk through to get to the cafeteria. I heard those words.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

They’re stuck in my head. A twin memory, juxtaposed to that precious moment from the birth suite. Clanging. Jangling. Butting up against the reality of new life. Intruding on a celebration.

I purchased my wedges and waited as the hot oil turned them golden brown. I walked back past the room. It was still. Empty. Without breath. I don’t know what happened to the resident, whether they were rushed away for treatment, or how that story ends. But I do know it’s a stark reminder that all is not right in this world.

Those breaths my daughter took as she entered the world, the breaths she takes now as I sit beside her, will one day cease. As will mine. My wife’s. My other children. Breath is fleeting. Life is fleeting.

Breathe little girl. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, let’s, for the sake of argument, call him Solomon, reflected on the existential dilemma that this dependence on breath places us in, against the backdrop of just how temporary our breathing is in the grand scheme of things.

Breath. Over and over again he repeats the word ‘hebel’ — a word our translations render as “meaningless,” but a word that means breath. Fleeting. Inhale/exhale. You breathe in. You breathe out. And it’s all over.

“Breath! Breath!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly breath!
    Everything is breath.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-6

This leads to a pretty depressing place.

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is breath, a chasing after the wind.” — Ecclesiastes 2:17

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is breath. —Ecclesiastes 3:19

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Breathe little girl. 

Why?

Why is it that breath does not last? That life does not last?

This miracle of new life, and new breath, that I witnessed for the third time this week, why isn’t it an eternal miracle?

Why does life end?

If Solomon had been able to answer these questions adequately, then perhaps Ecclesiastes would be a little less morose. He does turn, in the face of futility, to the only one it makes sense to turn to. The one who gives life.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”…

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath! Breath!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is breath!”…

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. — Ecclesiastes 12:1,6-8, 13

Solomon’s dad, David, was also confronted by this same existential crisis, the question of what life means in the face of the stark reality of death.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
   let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

 “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
    in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
    without knowing whose it will finally be.

 “But now, Lord, what do I look for?
    My hope is in you.
 Save me from all my transgressions;
    do not make me the scorn of fools.” — Psalm 39:4-8

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expire. And yet, David speaks of hope and salvation… The Psalms, not all of them are written by David, end up a little more hopeful, relying on God’s life-giving character as part of the answer to death.

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time.
 When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
    they are satisfied with good things.
 When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works.” — Psalm 104:27-31

God gives life. God takes it away.

We humans can prolong life by artificially breathing into someone’s lungs.

“Ok, let’s start CPR”

Sometimes by moments, sometimes by years. But never eternally. We just don’t have enough breath, or life, to give. CPR, at its most basic, is the giving of some of the oxygen allocated to yourself, in terms of the finite number of times you’ll breathe in your lifetime, to someone else. It’s incredible. The transfer of life giving breath from one person to another.

But CPR is a temporary fix. It’ll always be followed by death. This, in part, is because we’ve all only got a finite amount of oxygen to spare. CPR is a dying person giving another dying person a bit of their life. Real life needs living breath, the sort that Psalm speaks of, the sort that creates and renews, when God sends his Spirit — breath that comes from the infinite life giver. It’s God and his glory, and his breath-created works that will endure forever. This sort of breath seems the only answer in the face of death, which only entered the world because we rejected God.

This is not how it was supposed to be. The link between life and breath is no accident. For those who take what the Bible says about life and breath and death seriously, our breathing was not meant to cease. We were made to live. We were made to live in such a way that our very life — the essence of our existence — reflected the greatness and glory and existence of the one who breathed life into us. Whatever points Genesis is making about the origins and function of human life, one thing is clear — breath is what separates us from dust. From dead matter. Breath is why we matter, it’s what gives life in this world — first to the animals (Genesis 1:30), then to humanity.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” — Genesis 2:7

This breath is what gives us the capacity to live out our function as living images of the living God. Not simply images fashioned from clay, or precious metals. And, Christians believe the living God continues to fashion every human life.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! — Psalm 139:13-17

The other gods of the Ancient Near East had their dead statues. Idol statues that were formed and fashioned by craftsmen, then ceremonially “quickened” in a mouth opening ceremony so they could act for the god they represented— despite this ceremony they remained still, mute, and dead. Breathless.

Idols don’t speak. In part because they don’t breath (have you ever tried breathing without speaking?). And they don’t breath because they don’t live. They don’t help us answer the existential dilemma we’re confronted with at the sound of inspiring or expiring (and just how cool is it that these words are related to breath entering and leaving the lungs?). The consistent testimony of the inspired writers of the Old Testament is that Idols do not speak, or breath, so they cannot inspire… they leave us bereft and helpless in the face of the fleeting nature of life. That’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes finally turned to his Creator.

I look but there is no one—
    no one among the gods to give counsel,
    no one to give answer when I ask them.
See, they are all false!
    Their deeds amount to nothing;
    their images are but wind and confusion.— Isaiah 41:28-29

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Replacing the living God with other stuff is what started the long, slow, march towards death for all people. And eventually we’ll become just like the dead, dusty, stuff we replaced him with.

“OK, let’s start CPR”

Death sucks because in suffocating us of life and breath, it robs us of something that is intrinsic to our humanity and its essence. It consumes the life that was given us in order that the one who gives life might be seen.

Even if we do all in our power to be shaped by other gods, idols that we live for and reflect instead, until breath is taken away, until death happens, we still, in our living, breathing, existence point to the existence of the life-giver. The breath-giver.

The gods of the nations around Israel were represented by dead images, fashioned from dirt. But not the God of the Bible. The living God. The God who could not, and would not, be represented by dead statues. Statues with no breath in them. The living God needed living representatives.

Idols are dead. And dumb. As we follow them, or simply turn away from the life-giving God, that becomes our destiny. Dumb death. This future is all we can inflict on others on our own steam (or breath). This is why CPR is only a temporary fix. We are expirers by our nature, not inspirers.

The living God, on the other hand, speaks and gives life. Rather than death.

Where people make images of dead gods, the living God gives life to living images.

Humans.

That we die is an affront to what we were created for. God is a living, breathing, God — who gives and sustains life through breath, and ends life by taking that breath away (Numbers 16:22, 27:6, Job 12:10, 27:3, 33:4). As long as we live and breathe, by God’s design and as his gift, we still actively bear his image. Whether we like it or not…

If it were his intention
    and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all humanity would perish together
    and mankind would return to the dust. — Job 34:14-15

God takes life, because God gives life.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

God gives life to all people. In this sense, all living, breathing, speaking people, whether they remain turned away from God and towards things that kill or not, continue to represent something true about God. But temporary life isn’t really a complete testimony to the eternal life of the life giver, given eternal life is. Psalm 104 delights in the idea that the glory of God will endure forever as God rejoices in his works. Adam and his descendants don’t truly carry out the role of image bearer.

Jesus does.

The humanity Jesus reveals in his perfectly obedient life, death, and resurrection, is a truer humanity than our natural, death-riddled, humanity. The humanity offered to us in Jesus, the new life, and new birth, offered to those who turn to him and receive God’s Spirit, is a fuller picture of God, and the answer to the crisis of existence that confronts us in the face of death. It solves the shortness of our life, by offering eternal life. A share in the true essence of God’s life. In the Old Testament story, turning away from God and towards idols leaves people metaphorically (or perhaps metaphysically) with stone hearts, and as dry bones. God’s promise to his people is that he will re-enter the scene to renew and recreate life (which echoes the hope of Psalm 104).

“‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” — Ezekiel 37:4-6

This is divine CPR. CPR that works because the infinite one, with lungs of infinite capacity, who breaths life, not death, is the one administrating the life-giving intervention.

The beauty of the Christian story is that as God breathes his Spirit back into us we start reconnecting with the divine, inspiring, purpose of human life, powered by God’s breath. We become his workmanship again. Consider Ephesians 2, the whole chapter, or even the whole letter, is gold, of course… but these bits:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do… For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. — Ephesians 2: 4-5, 10, 18, 22

We become work that will endure eternally. Inspired, rather than expiring. The effort put into knitting us together in the womb meets its divinely inspired purpose. Breath and life intertwine as we become God’s image bearers again. Presenting a living image, and pattern, we see perfected and demonstrated in Christ (see Colossians 1:15-21). The weird thing about the pattern of Jesus life, the way he demonstrates that he is God’s craftsmanship (and the way I think Paul follows his example, cf 2 Corinthians 3-4), is that it’s caught up in being prepared to stop breathing for the sake of others. It’s about being prepared to lay down life now, confident that the one who gives life will take it up again (John 10:14-18). It’s on the Cross where the pattern for life-giving humanity that reflects the life-giver is laid out for all to see. On the Cross the one who connects us with the life-giving God shows exactly what it looks like to truly trust and obey God. He demonstrates what it looks like to simultaneously and perfectly love God, and love your neighbours, and your enemies. At the Cross Jesus defeats death, and he does that by putting his breath, and life, in its place. In the hands of God. Showing us what it is to trust God in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of a short existence.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. — Luke 23:46

Through Jesus, God’s life giving breath — his Spirit — comes to dwell in us, not us alone, but us his people — giving us life again. God’s life. Eternal life. The promise of the Old Testament prophets and the hope of the Psalms (even the hope of Solomon), meet their fulfilment.

Paul, who wrote that stuff from Ephesians, ties up all this stuff— idols, images, and God’s relationship to life and death, and breath in Jesus — as he speaks to the leading thinkers of Athens, in Acts 17. These thinkers are those who spend their time grasping and grappling with the existential question death presents to us. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Paul turns to the Creator of life to find a way to answer this question without being all-consumed by existential angst.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Breathe. 

Life is found in and through the one who the creator, the living, breathing, God raised from the dead. Jesus.

My prayer for my kids, for Elise, for Xavi, for Soph (and for all those I love), is that they might know that they are fearfully and wonderfully crafted by God, as his workmanship, that they might stay connected to his purpose for them through Jesus, and grow to love God, and live by his breath. Not our on their own steam. Because this is what lasts. And as a dad, it’s the only thing that gives me hope knowing that one day the lives I hold in my hands, and in my heart, will end.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.